By Gina Barreca

People like their doctors, but patients love their nurses.

“I was preterm labor with my first kid,” is how my friend Karen Dahl describes the scary situation. “Suddenly I had to be hospitalized. I became very, very frightened. Then a nurse came in and announced that ‘If we can’t stop the labor, then I’m gonna get up on the bed with you, and they’re going to wheel us down the hallway together.’”

Karen, whose terrific 10-year-old is proof it’s wise not to argue with a nurse on a mission, says that she’s never been more comforted by anyone’s words.

I bet it was the word “together” that made all the difference. With a nurse as your advocate, your ally and your accomplice, you feel the burden of your struggle lifted.

When my mother, age 47, was in the hospital dying of bone cancer, a handsome nurse flirted with her and made her laugh. He brought color to her cheeks and made her flutter her eyelashes, making her feel girlish again even as her life was ending. She smiled even though she had few smiles left. The male nurse — as we called them back then, the same way we called female physicians “women doctors” in those unenlightened times — was a generous and kind professional.

Good nurses are experts on human nature; they recognize and attend to hidden wounds, disguised pains and overlooked necessities.

I bet we’ve all had a compassionate, funny, smart, knowledgeable nurse to help us because otherwise we wouldn’t be here. Yes, physicians are essential, but it’s nurses who often do the literal and metaphoric heavy lifting.

Doctors retain technical authority and usually command respect, but we associate nurses with calmness, cheerfulness and closeness.

“In eighth grade I had surgery to put screws in my hips,” remembers writer Tim Stobierski. “Eight hours later, a nurse arrived with crutches to get me walking. ‘It’s gonna hurt,’ she said, ‘but that’s no excuse not to do it.’ That’s serious wisdom.”

Nurses are tough cookies and proud of it. Without having stamina, courage, optimism and resilience, how could they expect the same from their patients?

Historically, women who were willing to do the hard job of being professional wound binders, caretakers, life bringers and death navigators were treated with deference (when they weren’t being burned as witches).

They dealt with matters that were taboo, sacred and unmentionable. They unflinchingly witnessed what only generals, surgeons and clergymen were expected to confront.

If they came from the ranks of the upper or middle classes, they forfeited the pretense of lady-like niceties and deal with viscera, dirt and despair. If they came, as they increasingly did in the early-to-mid 20th century, from working-class families, they forfeited the pretense of silliness, diziness and feminine helplessness.

They created lives independent from men in their households and were often the first in their extended families to secure an education. Unapologetic about their decision to choose a vocation and their commitment to work, they led the way for many who followed their examples in medicine and other professions as well.

That nurse in the family or neighborhood? Everybody had the number memorized. Nobody called the doctor but the nurse was asked about every splinter, ache, fall and crisis.

Nursing can’t be easy, but it’s got to be funny.

I’m proud that a number of my students have taken this route. Julianne Giordano, now an inpatient oncology nurse, explains “Becoming a nurse simultaneously cured my misanthropy and chipped away at my deep-seated belief that I had nothing good or true to offer anyone.” Julie added that even during her more grueling shifts, “Every hour has at least one this-is-why-I-do this moment.”

Known for their humility, humanity and humor, nurses — such as UConn anthropology major, Dorothy Watson Heinrichs, now at MedStar Washington Hospital Center — don’t seek honorifics or public acclaim.

“We do our best and hope that patients remember us with affection,” says Dorothy.

It’s with affection, respect and joy that we think of you, dear nurses. We’re in your debt. You make us grateful — and you make us better.

Gina Barreca is an English professor at the University of Connecticut and the author of nine other books. Send comments to letters@dailyjournal.net.