Gravity and Grace: What Becoming a Nurse Teaches You About Being a Poet

Many years ago, after the Master of Fine Arts did not generate the academic career and writing lifestyle I bought blindly into, I needed a job. I laid aside creative writing for a time, leaned into my gifts of empathy and scientific curiosity, and became a nurse. School was grueling, work even more so. I entered the workforce as a Progressive Care Cardiac Nurse, where I would monitor step down patients from cardiac Intensive Care Units, bridging the gap between critical care and basic medical-surgical nursing. During the Covid crisis, I was sealed into a wing with six beds, no doctor or tech, some Personal Protective Equipment, a hospital cellphone, and the dying. The experience still haunts me.

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Searching for a better work-life balance, while I nursed my own acute depression from losing my oldest sister to the same virus I battled every day in the workplace, I transferred to the Surgery Department and became a Certified Nurse in Perianesthesia Patient Care. I worked and was worked. Being bedside means being the main observer and assessor. The doctor must trust in the skills honed by nurses and we, as a whole, must always be thinking two to three steps ahead of how the patient is presenting. Nurses are walking triage, always on guard.

I must enter the poem’s body through my own corporealness.

I am currently out on short term disability—torn rotator cuff—because, like many nurses, I have cared for others past my own body’s boundaries. However, the ordeal hasn’t been all a cautionary tale of physical therapy, Mobic for pain, and ice packs. My personal health crisis has forced me to step back from the new field I worked so hard to break into. The seismic shift unearthed a piece of me that I thought I’d lost: poetry.

During my Family Medical Leave Act break from the hospital and direct patient care, I meet with my work bestie. I listen to her complaints about the floor—share sheepishly my silver lining: I have written more in the past few months than I have in five years. She mentions how, of course, I would given that “nursing must make for tons of writing.” I’m startled at how fast I knee-jerk react with a strong, “Hell no, it doesn’t.” We are both stunned, and it’s a painful observation all around.

“You’re coming back to the floor, aren’t you?” she asks. I stand confounded by more questions: How I move forward when healthy enough to return bedside? How do I turn that knee-jerk negativity, that mental fatigue, that physical exhaustion, that bitter belief nursing restrains my writing into a positive gain? I don’t know if I can, and yet how did I do it?

The obvious, which I must accept no matter how I want to rally against it, is that nursing does offer a plethora of content. There is the too young pediatric patient’s blistered and distorted skin from a suicide attempt by self-immolation. There is always the, “I’m sorry, this is going to hurt,” as I promptly push forefinger and index finger two inches deep into the 86-year-old patient’s groin to occlude her femoral artery from bleeding out status post-surgery.

Her husband, even older, stands in the corner with concern crinkling his eyes more than any celebration they’ve shared together; but not as much as in my eyes connecting with my peer. We both, as nurses, know the seriousness of this situation and the looming chance for fatality if we cannot get the bleeding in check in time. And even still, there are the most inappropriate yet all too human, what’s in your butt Emergency Room stories courtesy of the Circulating Nurse of the day.

My dear friend Gary Rafferty, Vietnam vet and first poetry mentor, told me about the reptilian brain theory: people with trauma have a basal-ganglia full of images and no words to express them. Images from the hospital prey on me so profoundly that I fear I can no longer set my own words free. How can I, jaded and traumatized by the horror I’ve seen, approach my memories creatively and with lyrical language? Nursing does not offer the context. HIPPA and privacy laws prevent any perversion of story or sharing of personal information.

Even the brief descriptions above rub dangerously close to a breach. As the poet, I must create the context anew around the content by drawing from poetic devices I have learned over the years and by my own human condition. I am of a body, and it is through my body’s five senses (sometimes six) that I experience and understand the world and others around me. I must enter the poem’s body through my own corporealness.

It seems I cannot escape the “contextual” grace of the body.

Because I have a mortgage that needs to be paid and a family that requires the proverbial, and real, food on the table, I must balance the mental burnout of coming home, eating dinner, some days drinking way too much, all while dumbly staring into the mid-distance at a true crime documentary. In the midst of this maelstrom, I meditate on the balm offered by John F. Deane, an Irish poet and instructor, whom I studied with prior to MFA and nursing. For a poem to be “good,” he taught, the poet must implement “gravity and grace.”

When I convey the content that nursing offers and the context it does not, I write into that mantra; thus, forming a poem that contains a moment of pain, grief, or hardness—a gravity, at the same time as containing a moment of hope, joy, pleasure—a grace. Therein lies a self-portrait of this nurse slash poet, or for any poet slash nurse: gravity/grace.

It has been two years since the aforementioned pediatric patient left the hospital. The patient survived to enter the tender preteen years and ongoing therapy—a hard won victory. On their anniversary of going home, we nurses send cards wishing for continued strength and wellness. The elderly woman’s artery was successfully sealed and she was discharged the next day to a much relieved husband. There is pizza, sometimes donuts, in the break room.

And I am here, in a body with a busted shoulder from care-giving, my own “contentual” gravity if you will (it’s in the Oxford English Dictionary). And equally there is coffee with a good friend, there’s healing to various degrees, there is my debut book about to launch into the world. I have written. And I will write after all. It seems I cannot escape the “contextual” grace of the body.


four fields

Four Fields by Dorinda Wegener is available from Trio House Press.

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