Every summer, the Colgate Palmolive Company hired a very special group of high school students. If I recall correctly, the dozen or so lucky teenagers had been selected because they met a rather tough set of criteria.
First of all, they had to apply and only could if they were from a minority group. Next, and most importantly, they had to have shown great potential, good grades and all the extras that would give a hint or two of their future place in the world. Once they got into the company, they were assigned mentors and they were expected to prove that they were the best of choices for the small handful of openings. They met with the program adviser weekly, and throughout the summer, in addition to providing a service to the company, they received coaching and direction in how to succeed in business. Every week there was a Lunch and Learn. Together, they sat down for lunch and a guest speaker, invited by the group adviser, would join them. During lunch, the guest gave a brief overview on the who/why/where he or she fit into the corporate structure, a description of exactly what their particular profession was and the path that led to that place. Finally, there was time for questions and answers.
The lunch forums were a favorite part of the program for the students. Not only was it a free meal, but they had the full attention of a usually busy and oftentimes very senior member of a management team who had accepted the invitation. They met Corporate Vice Presidents, they sat down with people who made big decisions about the future of a product line, advertising, package design, finance and investment. Then, one day came my invitation. The Company Nurse. Me??? Gulp. These smart and motivated kids, these tiny little Nerd-like creatures who have had the ear of people who have had their caricatures on the front page of the Wall Street Journal, they want to lunch with me? Okay.
So, on an ordinary Wednesday afternoon midway through that summer, I lunched with a group of the brightest and most polite young people one could ever muster up. And, when it came time for the Q and A part of the lunch, I totally winged it. Everyone knows what nurses do. Their curiosity was centered on why Colgate had a nurse. What did I do all day? Why was I wearing Donna Karan's instead of Nursemates? And, then the inevitable big questions; did anyone ever die in my office, what was the funniest thing that ever happened, who would take care of me if I got sick. Snicker, snicker. Why did I become a nurse and not a doctor? The questions got tougher. These kids were experienced askers. After all, they already had the opportunity to ask Reuben Mark what it felt like to be one of America's most powerful corporate leaders.
Some of the questions were easier than others. Some really were amusing but perhaps the one that won their hearts and found me a few weeks later being in the Guest of Honor seat at their final luncheon, the one that brought back the guest they had voted as "our favorite", was the answer to the "Why?". I suppose I had not really given much thought to that question, or at least to ever having to answer it. I am sure I must have, in one way or another, had a good one because over the years, I mentored at least three women who had nursing on their minds and, after my wand was passed over their heads, wore caps upon them. But on the day I was called upon at the Lunch and Learn, I told it straight, they had to know the truth.
"Well, ladies and gentlemen, I was always a fat kid. When I was in high school, I had to decide what I wanted to do with my life. Nurses wore uniforms! That made it easy for me to decide. It was either nurse or nun and I knew I could never make it through the novitiate on the days of silence so, I chose nursing!"
You've never seen a bunch of kids so happy. For the rest of the summer, they became frequent visitors to my office. They, and the young man from the mail room who everyone thought mentally challenged because he had Cerebral Palsy. The one who never forgot "Nurses' Day" and remembered my love of cupcakes when it was my last day before retirement. They, and the young Hispanic man from the kitchen who could not find the words to thank me and to tell me that he was sorry to have taken my time when I patched up his nearly sliced off finger. They and the countless over-worked, stressed out twenty-somethings who I hid in my resting rooms. They and the broken hearted girls who cried their hearts out after the break ups. They and those with chest pains who I gave the traditional kiss of good bye and good luck on the sidewalk of 300 Park Avenue as they boarded the ambulance. They who showed their real, true, scared and vulnerable selves in my treatment rooms, their secrets locked tightly before brushing their suits off and returning to their own velvet hells.
The other day, my father called my cell phone. I was shopping and was several miles away. He sounded confused, scared. "Something has happened to my check book. There's something wrong. When can you get here?" I knew that this was not an emergency. I've helped him with those things that he found confusing before but I also knew in my heart that he was scared and his need for comfort was at hand. Later, I swung by his house and was greeted by my ninety two year old dad, all one and shaking like a leaf, the piece of paper in his hand flying in the tiny breeze. "Look! Something's terribly wrong" He pointed to the line where a balance, a small one, was printed much in the same format as his monthly checking account statement.
My eyes scanned the paper, I needed to be certain of the answer and soon. I also knew that he had a substantial amount in his checking account, something that was his current biggest source of pride and well-being. A careful examination and the problem was solved. "Dad, this is not your checking account. Everything is okay. This is a statement of a very small account that is linked to your retirement checks. Just put is aside for tax time" After several repeats and reassurances, the furrowed brow, the face of horror, disappeared. Dad became calm again. I sensed huge relief and his return to joy was palpable as he picked up the statement of his checking account from the desk and proudly waved it in the air. We sat down together and had a nice little visit before I got back into my car for the short drive home.
I've been retired for a few years now and haven't been in a clinical area to work since. Until this day, I had not given any thought to my former career. Those days are over. But. on that drive home, in the solitude of my car, I enjoyed five minutes of that same incredible feeling that I used to get on a daily basis in my white lab coat and my Donna Karan shoes. I didn't cop out. I hardly ever, as it turned out, wore a uniform. I refused to wear scrubs outside of the delivery room (they make me look like a clown), and I never, ever regretted the choice I had made.
So, ladies and gentlemen.....that's why I chose nursing.