nurses eat their young“Nurses eat their young.” I first heard the phrase while working as an orderly in the local hospital. As I progressed through my career, I heard it many times as an observation and sometimes as a question.

Why do nurses eat their young? Although the implications of the question bothered me, I found that I enjoyed the work. In my early thirties, becoming a nurse was a mid-life change from employment as a machinist.

Entering the Profession

From orderly to E.M.T, then L.P.N. and finally R.N., I embraced the medical field, always wanting to do more for those I cared for. This drove me to ever more study, knowledge, certifications and licensure. I was and continue to be proud of the accomplishments at each level.  Always in the back of my mind was the uneasiness of knowing that there was widespread behavior that had caused that curious phrase to be coined. I read about nursing’s cannibalism in journals, talked about it with my coworkers and, as I gained experience and respect, used the phrase myself sometimes to explain away an injustice I witnessed.

Looking back over my career, I can identify a few times where I in turn became part of the main course. A coworker’s unfair termination led the first hospital I worked in to be cited and fined in federal court for personnel policies violating the Constitution of the United States.  When I was stressed out by divorce, my employer forced my resignation. I was left wondering why the compassion of the nursing process couldn’t be used with coworkers as well as patients. A nurse stole a small sum of money from a collection and tried to blame me for it.

I survived, I learned, I grew. Eventually, I was no longer one of nursing’s young and I seldom find myself on the menu. Yet I have always wondered why must it be this way for those who follow?

A Realization in the ER

Enlightenment sometimes comes to us in strange ways. Nearly 15 years after choosing a career in the medical field, a chance overheard conversation helped me make sense of it all. A resident in the Emergency Department was assessing an alcoholic patient. To determine if he was confabulating, he posed the question “why do helicopters eat their young?”

I expected to hear a nonsensical answer, or possibly something humorous, but not anything profound.The patient confidently replied that he was not allowed to discuss the subject in public, that it was a matter of national security and to answer the question would incur the death penalty. He rambled on for several minutes. Then, almost as an afterthought, he floored me when he added the answer I had so long wondered about, “besides, they’re more tender when they’re young".

Are you a new nurse being treated poorly by a veteran nurse?  Do you believe that nurses eat their young?  If so, why does this occur and what can we do about it?  Please leave a comment below sharing your thoughts on the issue.