C. & Schaefer, J., eds. Davis

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Annotated by:
Coulehan, Jack

Primary Category: Literature / Literature

Genre: Anthology (Mixed Genres)


This is a new collection of poetry and short prose by nurses, edited by Cortney Davis and Judy Schaefer, whose remarkable first anthology, Between the Heartbeats: Poetry and Prose by Nurses [see annotation in this database], may be the founding document of "nurse writing" as a recognizable genre. In the Foreword, Cortney Davis comments on the process of selection and sketches the similarities and differences between this and the previous volume.

One of the interesting similarities is that nurses write more often about birth than death; one of the differences is the wider range of topics, including nurses who reveal their own experiences as patients (see Amy Haddad, "Conversations with Wendy," pp. 100-102) and others whose fatigue and frustration cause them to step away from nursing (see Pamela Mitchell, "A Nurse's Farewell," pp., 149-151)

As in Between the Heartbeats, the authors of Intensive Care appear in alphabetical order, which favors variety and surprise over categorization. In "Medical Ward," the first poem (pp. 1-2), Krys Ahlman captures many of the themes of the anthology. "I was wearing a thousand tiny failures," Ahlman writes, and concludes: "I held out my hand, I said / I am not afraid to cry."

Intensive Care is full of delights. As advertised, there is much about bringing children into the world and caring for them; for example, Lynn Bernardini's reminiscence, "Does This Day Mean Anything to You?" about having given up her own baby for adoption (pp. 11-16); Celia Brown's poem "Forget-Me-Nots" (pp. 35-36); and the powerful but ambiguous hope of "Neonatal ICU" (Leigh Wilkerson, p.247). There are the painful memories of dying children and adolescents, especially Jeanne Bryner's amazing, "Breathless" (p. 42) and "Car Spotting, " (pp. 173-184), a story by Christine Rahn about a terminally ill adolescent. In "Car Spotting" the head nurse criticizes the young narrator because, "You become too personally involved with the patients . . . Nurses must make decisions based on objective data. Becoming too attached can cloud professional judgment." (p. 175) I found this an interesting statement coming from a nursing instructor--it could well have been made by a professor of medicine to a third year medical student.

Other major themes include the humor of nursing (see "RX for Nurses: Brag!" by Kathleen Walsh Spencer, p. 203; and "What Nurses Do on Their Day Off," Judy Schaefer, p. 188); women's health (see "Every Day, the Pregnant Teenagers," Cortney Davis, p 69; and "Redemption at the Women's Center," Jeanne Lavasseur, pp. 132-133); nursing the elderly (see "Home Visits," Paula Sergi, pp. 195-196); and the wonderful narratives of patient care (see "Sarah's Pumpkin Bread," Terry Evans, pp. 87-90; "Edna's Star," Chris Grant," pp. 95-99; and "That Mystique," Madeline Mysko, pp. 158-167). Finally, Intensive Care looks back thoughtfully in a number of pieces to nursing in military settings.

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As Joanne Trautmann Banks indicates in the Foreword of this fine anthology, "when we are sick, very sick, it is often the nurse who is closest to our bodies, minds, and souls." This experience of closeness to suffering is well-reflected in the poetry and prose of the 49 nurses whose work is collected here. While these writings vary widely in form and style, they focus almost exclusively on the nursing interaction; they are nurses' stories of patients and nurses' reflections on nursing. Two major themes pervade the book. One is the powerlessness of nurses in the face of illness and suffering. The other is their tough, unsentimental devotion to their patients and the profession.

Of the poetry, particularly fine pieces include: "Raiment" (Carol Brendsel); "Daffodil Days" (Celia Brown); Butterfly (Jeanne Bryner; see this database); "What the Nurse Likes" and The Body Flute (Cortney Davis); "Hospital Parking Garage" (Jeanne LeVasseur); and "Euthanasia" (Belle Waring). Among the excellent prose pieces are "Nighthawks" (Carolyn Barbier), a tale in the voice of a ventilator-dependent woman who has elected to discontinue treatment and die; "While His Life Went on Around Him" (Angela Kennedy); "Wisteria" (Leslie Nyman); "Where Are You Now, Ella Wade?" (Joyce Renwick); and "Bev Brown" (Sybil Smith).

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