Two Nurses, Smoking

Means, David

Primary Category: Literature / Fiction

Genre: Short Story

Annotated by:
Miksanek, Tony
  • Date of entry: Jul-19-2022
  • Last revised: Jul-20-2022


Two nurses decked in scrubs repeatedly meet outdoors for smoking breaks and banter during the summer and fall months. Gracie, a thin and pale woman, leads an itinerant life as she follows a mobile lithotripsy unit that services "cut-rate hospitals" in New York. She assists with the machine (dubbed "the kidney pounder") that delivers ultrasound energy to smash kidney stones. Marlon, a brawny man and Army vet adorned with a scar on his neck and an arm tattoo, works in the ER at one of the modest hospitals visited by the lithotripsy trailer.

The duo exchange numerous stories about patients they have cared for and eventually details about their own private life including personal hardships. A bond develops and deepens between these two people who "were both damaged, somehow lost" (p50). Their growing relationship is accompanied by physical attraction and culminates later in a night of love-making followed by mutual weeping.


Tenderness trickles throughout this tale of two nurses who are desperately in need of some healing themselves. The emotional challenges confronting health workers are deftly depicted - "internalizing the pain of the patients" (p41) and compassion fatigue. Despite their interactions with so many people during a workday, loneliness still looms large for Gracie and Marlon. They are in some ways "broken" individuals and even their fondness for cigarette smoking reflects self-destructive behavior.

Attentive listening is an essential skill for health professionals, but the stories of sickness and injury that are heard day after day can come with a steep emotional cost. Yet listening to each other, these two nurses fortunately discover connection, comfort, and something greater.

Primary Source

Two Nurses, Smoking: Stories (pp37-56)


Farrar, Straus and Giroux

Place Published

New York



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