Tenderly Lift Me: Nurses Honored, Celebrated, and Remembered

Bryner, Jeanne

Primary Category: Literature / Nonfiction

Genre: Biography

Annotated by:
Davis, Cortney
  • Date of entry: May-11-2004


Tenderly Lift Me is the latest publication from Kent State University Press in the Literature and Medicine series edited by Martin Kohn and Carol Donley. Not all the 39 caregivers Bryner honors through poetry, biographical sketches and photos are nurses, but all have discharged their caregiving duties as the title indicates: tenderly. The book opens with a preface by Bryner who wants "people to care about nurses the way nurses care about people who are total strangers" (p.xii). A literate and insightful introduction by Suzanne Poirier and Rosemary Field follows.

The book, divided into eight parts, contains biographical sketches and interviews with nurses or tender caregivers, their photographs, and poems by Bryner in which she speaks in the voices of the individual nurses, celebrating but never sentimentalizing their stories.

Some of the nurses are daughters of blue-collar workers: Carol Johnson (p. 77) went on to become a cardiothoracic nurse practitioner, harvesting veins for open heart surgeries. Helen Albert (p. 52), the granddaughter of a slave, became "the first black registered nurse hired in Warren, Ohio." The nurses celebrated are both living and dead; some are aged, this book the only vessel that might hold their histories. All the caregivers, like Father Damien, born in 1840, caretaker to a colony of lepers in Molokai, come alive in Bryner's prose and poems, speaking to us in image and metaphor as well as fact and biography.

There are journal entries from Kate Cumming, who cared for confederate soldiers during the Civil War (p. 151), and comments from contemporary nurses, like Sylvia Engelhardt, one of the first nurses to graduate from an associate degree program and feel the "sting of labels" (p. 69), or Theresa Marcotte Kokrak (p. 46) who remembers traveling though Canada's seventy-below wind-chill to report to duty. Bryner celebrates the nurses' accomplishments as well as the daily events, the doubts and frustrations, the dark moments that these nurses have overcome in order to care for others, nurses who are "human, and sometimes a little heroic, but not from heaven" (P. xii).


In the introduction, Suzanne Poirier notes that "Bryner has chosen to celebrate the magical, even mystical elements of nursing that cannot be measured. The art of nursing that often goes unnoticed, unrecognized" (p. xxiv). Bryner allows us access to those mystical elements through her poems, which, if in a book by themselves, would be accomplishment enough. Combined with her biographical sketches and remembrances of these caregivers, the poems take on additional meaning and accomplish something quite remarkable.

The photos, of the nurses (in their caps on graduation, caring for their patients, and in one case, sitting on a motorcycle) and sometimes of the objects in their lives (their diplomas, a military nurse's canteen and mess kit) add another dimension. By book's end, the reader has a personal sense of these nurses' lives. Bryner leaves us with a poignant appreciation for what we might lose if, as medicine and technology change, the role of the nurse is undervalued or unheralded, and eventually disappears. This is an essential text for nurses, for literature and medicine and nursing humanities courses. It will re-introduce caregivers to their companions and colleagues, the ones at the bedside doing the often unsung, tender work of nursing.


Kent State Univ. Press

Place Published

Kent, Ohio & London



Page Count