The Nurses By Alexandra Robbins

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Review by Terri Schlichenmeyer

Alexandra Robbins, the author of five New York Times best-selling books, is an investigative journalist and the recipient of the 2014 John Bartlow Martin Award for Public Interest Magazine Journalism, given by the Medill School of Journalism. Her previous works include Pledged: The Secret Lives of Sororities and The Overachievers: The Secret Lives of Driven Kids.

Your favorite medical drama just did the unthinkable.

They killed off the character everyone loved best, and you almost feel betrayed. You enjoyed watching what happened every week, loved seeing drama unfold and getting immersed in the story line. Not anymore.
Still, TV’s not always reality, you know. He might not be “dead,” and hospitals don’t run like that anyhow, as you’ll see in The Nurses by Alexandra Robbins.

Imagine a job where lifting “approximately 1.8 tons” in an 8-hour shift is a requirement, where squabbles and sexual harassment are common, and appreciation is often rare. You might work all day without eating and without restroom breaks, and your life could be in some degree of danger at all times. Welcome to nursing.

With this description in mind and wanting to know more about the medical personnel who know you better than your doctor does, Alexandra Robbins interviewed hundreds of nurses in North America and overseas. She also shadowed four nurses working at various hospitals in an unnamed major American city.

There was soft-spoken Molly, who understood that nurses sometimes get the short shrift in the hospital budget and that cutting corners in both personnel and in procedure sometimes happened from the top-down, both issues that irked her at a time when she had more important things on her mind. Molly and her husband very much wanted to start a family, and IVF seemed their best hope. Her compassion–her convictions–were things she hoped to pass on to her own child someday. But when would that happen?

There was Sam, a first-year nurse, who needed every ounce of self-confidence to fight undeserved gossip from peers who didn’t understand her quiet personality or her focus. A hospital–a caring, nurturing place to heal–seemed an unlikely spot to find workplace bullies, but they were there. Dealing with them was an unwelcome extra that only time and a vacation would fix.

There was Juliette, who hated the lack of support and acceptance within her workplace and when she learned of a supervisor’s unprofessionalism, she realized that it was time to make a move. And then, maybe, another move. Was there ever going to be a time when she’d feel like she fit in?

And there was Lara, who gave in to workplace temptation and subsequently battled drug addiction. Few colleagues knew of her past or of her recovery, but when an injury required surgery and painkillers, Lara wasn’t sure she had the strength to fight her demons again.

Four women, hundreds of kinds of nursing situations and a whole lot of stories went into the one year it took to make this book. In following four professionals in an unnamed major city, author Alexandra Robbins learned about what nurses see on the job – life-and-death matters, family dynamics, egotism, violence – and the bullying they may endure from patients and co-workers. She examines why nurses get “crisp” and what they do to alleviate their burn-out, and Robbins also uncovered a bit of confession time. Yes, her interviewees admitted, medical personnel talk about patients, but it’s really not personal. Yes, there are things that nurses wish they could tell you, but myriad reasons keep them from doing so. And no, it’s not easy work, but most “truly love nursing.”

Those of you who are (or are related to) nurses are nodding your heads, aren’t you? Yes, you know the truth; you know why nurses are an elite group, and despite the heartburn and heartbreak, you know why nurses are so tenacious in their work. And if you’re not up on that knowledge, well, Robbins’ subjects don’t gloss over anything here; in fact, The Nurses is exciting and honest, from admission to release.

But those personal and at-work stories aren’t the entire reason to read this book. Robbins also busts myths, shows the inner workings of emergency rooms, offers golden advice, and she explains behind-the-scenes events and why nurses deserve way more kudos than they get. That nicely balances the inherent drama in the four personal stories, though it might make patients outraged.

I can see this book for nurses, definitely, but it’s also something to read if you’re thinking of nursing school or if you might need medical care any time soon. There is, in fact, a very comprehensive chapter on what can be done to make hospitals a better place, a chapter meant for medical personnel, hospital CEOs and patients and their families. The Nurses, in other words, contains good stories, but it’s also helpful. In short, it’s a reader’s McDream. HLM