Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Book Review: Critical Care by Theresa Brown

Title: Critical Care
Author: Theresa Brown
ISBN: 978-0-06-179155-0
Pages: 208
Release Date: June 1, 2010
Publisher: HarperStudio
Genre: Non-Fiction; Memoir
Rating: 4.5 out of 5

At my job, people die,” writes Theresa Brown, capturing both the burden and the singular importance of her profession. CRITICAL CARE chronicles Brown, a former English Professor at Tufts University, on her first year as an RN in medical oncology and the emotional ups and downs she encounters in caring for strangers. In contrast to other medical memoirs that highlight the work of doctors, this book focuses on the critical role played by nurses as health care providers.

Brown walks readers through the rigors of chemotherapy, reveals the odd things that can happen to people’s bodies in hospitals, and throws in some humor with her chapter titled, “Doctors Don’t Do Poop.” During her first year on the hospital floor, Brown is seriously injured but her recovery allows her to take a new perspective on the health care system, giving her a better understanding of the challenges faced by her patients.

Ultimately, Critical Care conveys the message of learning to embrace life in times of health and sickness. “The antidote to death,” Brown says, “is life.” Brown writes powerfully and honestly about her experiences, shedding light on the issues of mortality and meaning in our lives.

My review: People repeatedly ask Theresa Brown why she left her career as an English Professor at a prestigious University to become a nurse. The simple, concise answer is she wants to help people. To take care of them. She felt strongly about this right after her children were born. Brown knew she wanted to care for people the way midwives had cared for her during the birth of her daughter. That's what a nurse does but a good nurse, one who likes her job and truly cares about the people she comes in contact with, does much more than take care of a patient as Brown learns in her first year in the medical oncology ward where death is normal.

I was extremely interested in reading this book as soon as I saw it in the Shelf Awareness newsletter. I have spent a lot of time in hospitals and been cared for by a lot of nurses. Thirty-six surgeries and numerous other hospitalizations for various health concerns means a lot of nursing care. Some nurses are fantastic, some are awful, most fall somewhere in between. It matters enormously for the patient's comfort, peace of mind, and more. Trust me. I've wanted to read a memoir by a nurse for a very long time because I always thought it would be interesting to see things from their perspective. Until now, I haven't been able to find one. Hence my extreme interest in Critical Care.

I admire Brown's dedication to her second career choice. It took her six years to get her bachelor's degree in nursing because she had to switch schools when her husband changed jobs and the family moved. Despite how long it took to earn her degree, Brown never wavered in her decision to change careers. And she displayed this same dedication when she finally started working in a hospital her first year as an R.N.

Doctors enter a patient's room in a hospital, examine them, ask some questions, scribble notes on their chart, hand it to the nurse and leave. Nurses attend to almost all the rest of the patient's needs and wants from helping them to use the bathroom, inserting an IV line and/or dispensing the patients medication. As Brown quickly discovered, a nurse's work is never done or, at least, that's what it felt like. During her first year, Brown seldom finished her work by the end of her shift and usually ended up staying late at the hospital.

The thing that most distinguishes a nurse from a doctor, who tends to treat a specific ailment or part of the patient's body, is that a nurse, at least one who is good at their job, treats and cares for "the whole person". In reading the stories about Brown's experiences with various patients its obvious that she quickly understood that her job isn't to just take care of the person on the physical level, but to communicate with them, understand what's troubling them mentally, to allay their fears and make them comfortable as possible in all ways. Brown displays a remarkable understanding of people as patients and their different attitudes and personalities. Rather than take personally a teenager's obnoxious quips or the cranky mutterings of an elderly woman, Brown puts herself in the patient's shoes and thinks about how they must feel being admitted to the hospital for the 6th time in 3 months or entering the hospital for a minor procedure only to learn they have an aggressive form of cancer. Brown empathizes with her patients, understands them and tries to interact with them in a positive way hoping to reduce, rather than exacerbate, their stress.

Critical Care is filled with stories about the patients Brown cared for and the nurses, doctors, technicians, visitors and others she met during her first year as a nurse working in a hospital. Each chapter is pretty intense and filled with graphic realities about health, life and death, as well as hospital politics and the bureaucracy one is often up against. Brown has written the chapters as if each is an individual essay relating an aspect of her nursing career instead of providing us with a long narrative. In writing her memoirs in such a way, Brown has made it more interesting and enjoyable because she's provided us the opportunity to digest the information in each chapter before moving on to the next.. I found it much easier to read 7-10 pages, put the book down, think about and absorb what I read and return to the book when ready.

As mentioned earlier, Brown spent her first year in the medical oncology ward. The result is that she saw many of her patients die. She learned a lot about death and dying, passing much of it on to her readers through stories about the different patients she cared for during that year. Some of these stories involve some graphic imagery and aren't for the feint of heart. Some are extremely sad. Caring for the dying and in comforting their families Brown learned the value of life and not to wait for tomorrow because it may not come. Through her memoir she reminds her readers how important it is to live our lives and to tell our loved ones how important they are too us before it's too late.

This is clearly a book for anyone who's wondered what its like and what it takes to be a nurse, as well as for those who, at one time or another, have needed a nurse, which is almost all of us or our loved ones I'd imagine! Critical Care is an honest, well-written account of Theresa Brown's first year as a nurse written with a mixture of empathy, humor, poignancy and compassion that speaks to anyone who cares and who's willing to listen.

I received this book from the Publisher, HarperStudio through Shelf Awareness.


  1. I really want to read this one. I've always felt that nurses are the unsung heroes and my experience is that they are usually overworked on top of it all. Thanks for bringing this book to my attention.

  2. My mother is a nurse, so she would probably enjoy this book. I don't think the career is for me, but I'm so glad it is for others!

  3. This sounds like a hard book to read, but also a really good one. Some of my good friends are nurses so I have a feeling they will love it. Nursing is definitely not something that I could do.

  4. I have a friend who is a nurse and I praise the work she does. It must be one of the most difficult jobs to have.
    This books sounds very interesting. Thanks for the wonderful review. I'll have to tell my friend about it as well.
    Wishing you a great weekend Amy. :)

  5. Amy....I am so happy you stopped by to leave a comment as somehow I lost track of your blog. I've now added you back to my reader.

    Hope you and the furballs are doing well.

  6. I am a mid-lifer seriously considering a career change to the nursing profession. Thanks for this review, as now I have it on my must-read list!

    Julie @ Knitting and Sundries