When oncology nurse Theresa Brown tells people she used to be an English professor, she gets some raised eyebrows -- even from other nurses. But to Brown, the two jobs are actually quite similar.
"I think teaching literature has a lot to do with thinking about humanity and what it is that makes us human," says Brown, who taught at Tufts University, MIT and Harvard. "Literature was always very connected to thinking about power and structure and what it means to be an isolated individual. I can bring all those things into nursing."
Brown made the move in August 2000. Her inspiration was some help she received during a difficult pregnancy with twin girls: She decided that "midwives have the coolest job in the world."
After relocating from Princeton to Pittsburgh (for her husband's job), Brown completed Pitt's one-year, accelerated nursing program and now works for UPMC Shadyside. And she's just published Critical Care (HarperStudio), her book about her first sink-or-swim year on the job.
Critical Care takes us through a year of nursing firsts -- Brown's first code, first death and first Condition A (a sudden death due to cardiac arrest). We learn, as she did, that what's behind the scenes of health care is a chaotic, bureaucratic maze. We see that nursing is as much about time-management and tenacity as it is about medicine.
Through it all, Brown explores communication -- her attempts to eliminate the distance between doctor and nurse, nurse and patient, and writer and reader.
"I just want to connect with people," she says, speaking by phone from her home in Point Breeze.
That requires keeping all her relationships on level ground. As a nurse, for instance, she isn't afraid to approach doctors with questions. "It's easy for nurses to become very obedient to rules. I'm sure that in nursing I'm seen as having a bit of an attitude," she says.
With her patients, meanwhile, Brown doesn't play the saint. Nurses are expected to come and go in their white uniforms without revealing anything personal, she writes. But that approach just makes Brown feel more like a cruise director. Rejecting the Florence Nightingale ideal, Brown chit-chats with patients to make them feel human.
"If I'm a saint and they're the sickly person, then we're unequal," she explains. "They don't always want to be the people with problems. They want to be able to be the one saying, 'How are you?' -- not the one who's always being asked."
Amongst her colleagues, Brown advocates mentoring. She feels that nursing in general does a poor job in easing the transition from student to professional. To Brown, when dealing with life and death, the do-or-die method seems ill-advised.
With her readers, meanwhile, Brown keeps it real -- no pretty words here. There's even a rather explicit chapter titled "Doctors Don't Do Poop," where Brown details days spent changing adult diapers.
As a nurse, Brown strives to connect with her patients, but as a writer she doesn't presume to speak for them. In Critical Care, Brown doesn't name her employer and changes the identities of patients to protect their privacy. Instead, she focuses on the ins and outs of nursing -- the good, the bad and the very, very messy.
While the questions she's asked as a nurse are far more difficult than those she faced as a professor, what gets her through is simply on-the-job experience. When someone asks you if they're going to die, it never gets easier, just more familiar, she says. And for Brown, these are the tough questions a nurse can best answer as one human being to another.
Theresa Brown reads from and signs Critical Care. 7 p.m. Tue., July 6. Joseph-Beth Booksellers, 510 S. 27th St., South Side. Free. 412-381-3600