Which field still has jobs — and rewards? Ask Kitty

Though reader Cortney Jokiel is nearly 60 years younger than I am, we have something in common: nursing school.

Cortney is starting her final year this month, taking two of her courses online so she can work evenings at a local clinic, doing urgent care, to pay her bills and keep her health insurance. “I’ve found everyone has a unique nursing school experience, especially over the generations,” she writes. “When did you go to nursing school, and what was that like for you?”

Pitching in
I trained at Edward J. Meyer Memorial Hospital in Buffalo, N.Y., in 1941-45, Cortney. Things were hopping. It was the era of Rosie the Riveter, when American men were going off to World War II and American women were taking their places in manufacturing plants. As a result, we were so shorthanded that nurses (and doctors’ wives, who volunteered) got stuck with laundry, bathing patients, and other chores that today might be done by CNAs (certified nursing assistants) and other support personnel.

The pace was hectic. Sometimes we nursing students assisted with surgeries because there was simply no one else to do it. These were also the days of the polio epidemic, so we had to apply “Kenny packs” — hot compresses of wool soaked in steaming water, devised by Sister Elizabeth Kenny, the famous physical therapist — to ease polio patients’ symptoms.

The shortage of nurses was so acute that the government established the Cadet Nurse Corps to try to ensure there were enough of us to serve both in the war and on the home front. We got a small monthly stipend to join, but we had to work for it. We would march down Main Street in our uniforms ... and wind up in the bar of Buffalo’s Lafayette Hotel, because we were thirsty and our feet hurt.

We were put upon, yet I have to admit I loved every minute of it. Everybody pitched in, and we had great esprit de corps. And as busy as we were, we still found time for social life ... and romance. You quickly learned to knock before you ventured into a storage room to get linens.

From student to teacher
After I finished my training, I went back to school and got my bachelor’s in nursing education. From the day I graduated, I never had trouble finding a job. I was one of the few people in the field with a B.S., and the jobs for someone with an advanced degree at that time were unbelievable; the jobs came looking for me. And when I had children, I could make my own hours.

I loved teaching nursing as much as I loved doing it. My students were game, though they had a lot to learn. One day I found a very young student irrigating a patient’s ear with a pan under the ear opposite the one she was irrigating. (Maybe she hadn’t had much anatomy yet and thought it would come right through.)

But nursing is a far different field today. Nursing education has changed vastly, for one thing; we couldn’t have imagined taking courses via Internet as Cortney does (although I did teach home care techniques via local television in Buffalo; they’d put anything on in those days).

Changing times
Home care, in fact, is one of the places where the action is today, even in this time of layoffs and soaring unemployment. People are living longer and longer, and as the baby boom generation (to which my husband and I contributed several members) ages, there will be even more demand. According to the U.S. Department of Labor, jobs in the health care sector are expected to grow 18 percent by 2012 — twice the growth rate of other occupations. And the field has expanded within itself; you have such options such as becoming a nurse practitioner or a certified nursing assistant, for example.

Technology has also made a huge difference. In my day, we nurses monitored a patient’s condition by keeping track of vital details such as temperature, pulse and respiration on paper charts. Today there are all sorts of sophisticated telemetry devices to help with that, freeing nurses for other responsibilities.

Granted, not everyone can become a nurse. You need at least a high school education, with good grades, and you have to study science. But one thing you do not have to be is a woman; nursing can be just as rewarding for men. Of the more than 124,000 students enrolled in BSN (Bachelor of Science in Nursing) programs in 2005, almost 11 percent were men.

Mind you, nursing is demanding. But salaries are much higher now than they were in my day; according to the American Nurses Association, advanced practice nurses averaged a yearly salary of $69,200 in 2006.

And besides, not all rewards are monetary. From hospital nursing to education to working in special ed., which I got a degree in later in my career, I just loved everything I did in the field. If you have any inclination toward health, medicine, science and being of service to people, you just can’t help feeling good about being a nurse.

For more information about entering nursing as a profession, click here.

Kitty Schindler, who grew up one of 10 children of a Pennsylvania coal miner during the Depression, shares her perspectives on staying afloat during challenging times with readers. If you have a question for Kitty or a tip of your own to share, send her an e-mail! To Ask Kitty, click .