nursing careerNursing. It’s not just a career – it’s a calling.

My hospital used that as an advertising campaign a few years back. Effective, yes, but is it true?

We think of nursing as a job, our work, a profession (which it is). It’s what we do – a choice we've made. Nurses can live comfortably on our incomes and even in hard times, there are usually jobs to be had.

And the variety! ER and flight nursing for adrenaline junkies, bedside nursing for those gifted in multitasking, Intensive Care for techies, hospice, school nursing, home and public health – the list goes on and on.

I went around the unit last week asking random colleagues why they become nurses. Have they pro-and-conned their way into the field, decided they needed something to “fall back on”, as my mother used to say, or heard a voice from Heaven?

As to the last, no one had.

Their faces softened, though, as they considered how they have ended up in this place, caring for a living.

Megan, a Gen Y nurse, didn’t feel called to choose this career. “It was just what I always wanted to be,” she said. We discovered we shared a fondness for those little plastic nurses’ kits when we were little girls thirty years apart. Neither of us wanted to be the doctor.

Denise couldn’t come up with a reason. Yet, here she is with a bright shiny Master’s Degree, beginning a preceptorship as a Nurse Practitioner, after many years at the bedside. Called? She couldn’t say so.

Being a nurse is a privilege. And a calling.

Like many nurses, I shy away from saying such a thing out loud, but, here’s the truth: I am called to nursing.

Not by an audible voice or a sign from God. Rather, I have been drawn gradually and steadily to this work, my vocation.


No less than the Oxford American Dictionary uses nursing as an example of a vocation – a word that literally means a calling. Novices in religious orders want to know if they have a vocation. Nurses do too. My best friend quit nursing school because she didn’t feel enough compassion for the patients. My hospital’s nurse residency program gives new graduates the opportunity to try out different specialties to find a good fit.

Some of us pray.

I didn’t originally see myself as called. I needed a better-than-minimum-wage job. Then I remembered my childhood love of nursing. I moved near a university with a good nursing program. I got my paperwork together and registered just in time for the Fall Quarter. I thought all of this was good luck.

I surprised myself by doing well in the sciences which I hadn’t in high school. Our class quickly tired of books, longing to see real patients. I loved it.

I found I was suited for this. I had a shirt that said “Nurses Make It All Better”, and for a while, I believed it.

Then discovered it wasn’t true. I saw death. And worse.

But kept coming back.

And started to see beyond the sadness and secretions, the chaos and complaining, to the secret that this work is so much more than a succession of tasks to be done. We nurses are in the unique position of being able to act as instruments of healing – listening, touching, validating, soothing.

My sister called me one day and said, “I wish I could do something important like you. Your work matters.”

These things drew me. I wanted to be good at this, to gain new skills, and I did. I learned that listening was as much a skill as starting an IV. Doing nursing well became less like gaining competence and more like participating in an intricate dance, relating and responding to my patients and co-workers with humility and (I hope) patience.

Like hearing the sound of a voice without understanding the words, I turned to the call and followed it. I moved toward what was beautiful and sacred in my nursing career, occasionally catching a glimpse of what lies just below the surface of our ordinary days of tending to and attending to our patients.

We may not be aware of our call or maybe we just don’t want to speak of something so holy. But, oh yes, we have a vocation.

We are called. And we’re answering.