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.


The most remarkable features of Intensive Care are its variety of style and topic; and the exceptional quality of the work. In the paragraphs above, I've given a sense of the variety. Perhaps it's just an artifact of my memory, but Intensive Care seems more varied and electric than was (is) Between the Heartbeats.

Finally, I'm grateful to have been introduced to the work of so many fine nurse-writers. While I was already familiar with the poetry of Jeanne Bryner, Theodore Deppe, Amy Marie Haddad, Veneta Masson, Belle Waring, and, of course, the editors, I was pleased to meet new friends. Aside from those mentioned above, I also want to mention Geoffrey Bowe, Helen Trubek Glenn, Patricia Maher, and Geri Rosenzweig.

This anthology will be invaluable for use in literature, humanities, and ethics courses in nursing schools; and similarly, for medical school teaching.


Intensive Care received the American Journal of Nursing Book of the Year Award (2003).


Univ. of Iowa Press

Place Published

Iowa City, Iowa




Cortney Davis & Judy Schaefer

Page Count