Being man enough to nurse

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It’s no longer a woman’s prerogative to be a caregiver: meet some gents who do not think there is anything ‘odd’ about choosing professional nursing as a career. And they’re loving putting smiles back on patients’ faces

By Karen Ann Monsy

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Published: Fri 21 Feb 2014, 4:58 PM

Last updated: Wed 17 May 2023, 1:24 PM

In Season 2 of the well-loved television series Scrubs, male nurse Paul Flowers doesn’t understand why Dr Elliot is suddenly not as thrilled about dating him when she finds out that he’s actually a male nurse or — as she puts it — a “murse”. Enlightenment comes swiftly in the form of the cynical Dr Kelso, however, who cracks, “That’s because you’re doing a woman’s job, son.”

You could seethe at the blatant sexism on show here but, in all 
fairness, the writers were likely only attempting to capture a social stigma rooted in the decades before — that nursing, as a profession, is a woman’s preserve. To say that today though would be as ignorant as assuming a doctor’s profession is meant solely for males. And yet this notion that a nurse, by default, must refer to a woman in a white dress and cap is still alive and kicking in some parts of the world.


In the UAE, the male to female ratio is pretty stark too. At the American Hospital Dubai, where Filipino expat Clyde Ruyeras works as a surgical clinic staff nurse, there are just 23 males out of a total staff strength of 262 nurses. In his experience, the 26-year-old says it’s always been “20 female nurses to one male nurse” — even when he worked in the Philippines. But in the UAE, he points out the difference is more likely down to cultural norms than discrimination.

“Living in a Middle Eastern country, we respect the culture. There are some health care practices that we cannot perform directly as a male nurse if the patient is female and specifically requests a female nurse. It goes both ways though — there are some care practices that only male nurses can provide to male patients.”


That’s not to say he hasn’t experienced gender bias on some levels. “When I first came to Dubai last year, I walked the length of Jumeirah Beach Road (both sides have clinics) under the hot Arabian sun for two weeks, looking for work,” he recalls. “But every time I told them I wasn’t there for an appointment, even before I could explain my position, I’d be told, ‘Sir, female nurses only’.

“I have nothing against it,” he clarifies. “But sometimes it drains you to hear certain comments — like a colleague who once told me: in her culture, they’d prefer not to marry a male who’s in the nursing profession. I cannot blame her… In her culture, somehow it affects the masculinity to say you’re a male nurse.”

The hapless Gaylord Focker comes to mind at this point, a character played by Ben Stiller in Meet the Parents and most memorable for having to defend his profession of a male nurse despite his future father-in-law’s scathing criticism of the choice. Clyde, whose mother and siblings are nurses too, makes it clear that the decision to become a male nurse was his own, no one else’s. “All I remember is that when I was about six years old, I saw a war movie in which an actor was rushing to a wounded soldier, carrying a med kit. I remember telling myself, I want to be that guy. My parents supported me all the way.” The youngster still has his heart set on being a military nurse, and says he’s “halfway through” to his goal. Does he have the stomach for it? “I should,” he says, steadily. “I need to.”

Clyde’s experience of gender bias may have applied across the board in yesteryears — but thankfully, does not seem to be everybody’s story today. Jordanian Ahmed Hasan moved to Dubai from Palestine just a few months back, in pursuit of better employment opportunities. The Medcare Hospital nurse admits nursing wasn’t his first career option though. “My father was an engineer and my brother, an accountant, so I grew up wanting to work behind a desk as well,” says the 25-year-old expat. He ended up fulfilling his mother’s wish though, that “one of [her] sons would become a nurse” — and realised he quite liked the field, despite the freedom to opt out if he chose. “Being able to help people in emergency situations and put that smile back on their faces — that’s what I like the most.”

The initial reaction from patients and friends is often quizzical, he says, amusedly. “Patients often go, ‘You’re a nurse?!’. I guess it’s a bit strange for some of them to deal with a male nurse in the beginning but once they see what we do for them, they really appreciate our help. It was the same thing with my friends — everybody respected my decision in the end.”

Ahmed hasn’t considered how long he wants to stay on in the field, but is quite happy to live in the moment. “The UAE is developing at an incredible pace and the medical industry here offers a lot more opportunity than Palestine. That’s why I moved. I’m happy here so I’m 
going to continue as a nurse for now.”

In recent years, the increasing shortage of staff in the nursing industry is an oft-recurring subject in the news. Scrub nurse Binu Thomas, who works at the CEDARS-Jebel Ali International Hospital, notes that in India too, nurses continue to be in great demand — irrespective of gender. When he was in nursing school in Bangalore, the male to female ratio was almost 50-50, he says. “There was no shortage of male students wanting to pursue nursing careers. My family was perfectly okay with my decision to become a nurse. The only stigma came from neighbours and relatives, who talked if you didn’t find a well-paying job” — which was the reason he moved out of his hometown in Thrissur, Kerala, in the first place. “Nurses are looking for work abroad because the pay offered at home cannot balance the cost of living there.”

Male nursing employment numbers in his hometown took a nosedive 
recently — a direct consequence of the union strikes that seized the state during 2012. The backlash of those protests meant only 44 male nurses were reportedly appointed in private hospitals that year, as opposed to 1,314 male nurses the year before. But that was two years ago. “If I went back to India now, I know I’d get a job very easily,” says the 29-year-old, confidently. Finding a 
job in his field may not be a problem, but Binu is anticipating that his chosen profession will make “settling down” a tad trickier. “I’ve heard that being a male nurse can be a concern for some girls.” But he’s not worried. “Someone will be out there,” he laughs.

While the emphasis in the UAE may be on female nurses due to local customs, he carefully points out an unspoken acceptance in the community that there are certain hospital settings that lend themselves better to men than they do to their female counterparts. Don’t get me wrong, he explains; female nur-ses are just as capable — but by virtue of physical attributes alone, some jobs — such as lifting patients, chest compressions during CPR (“that sometimes need to go on for 5-10 minutes”) — require more strength, and are, therefore, comparatively easier for males to carry out.

Emilio Galea, assistant director of nursing at Mafraq Hospital, Abu Dhabi, is not very keen on the distinction made between male and female nurses, to 
begin with. “It’s ridiculous,” he declares. “I honestly see no difference between the two. I call a nurse a ‘nurse’ because when I look at one, I don’t see a ‘him’ or a ‘her’ — I see the nurse. These notions [that make this distinction] belong to the 1930s-50s — and those boundaries have been crushed a long time ago, I think!”

Interestingly, the 49-year-old himself was first introduced to nursing in the ’80s by his wife and was “shocked” when she suggested the career path. “I didn’t even know that there were male nurses at the time. She knew my character, knew I’d enjoy it... and I think she was amazingly right. I realised nursing wasn’t called a noble profession by chance — it really was one, and would give me fulfillment for the rest of my working days.”

BUCKING THE TREND

Though the nursing profession is overwhelmingly female, a US Census Bureau study last year found that the proportion of male registered nurses had more than tripled since 1970, from 2.7% to 9.6%. The proportion of male licensed vocational nurses had more than doubled from 3.9% to 8.1% too

LOSE THE TYPECAST

Several medical dramas — including Grey’s Anatomy, Nurse Jackie and Private Practice — feature male nurses on the small screen. Researchers found that while these shows expose and reject stereotypes, they also tend to reinforce certain clichés, which they say can influence those considering the field

Emilio went on to join nursing school in 1985. His friends were surprised 
because, like him, they too didn’t know the profession was open to them. “But one of my friends actually became a nurse because of my decision — and he’s still in nursing today,” he adds proudly.

The Malta-born Emilio, who moved to Abu Dhabi in 2007 and now heads an energetic nursing education team, says the worst part is when other professions or the public try to “belittle” nursing. “That really touches a nerve,” he says, “when people believe that a nurse is but the milkmaid of the doctor. Healthcare is not physician-led or nurse-led. It’s a team — and there should never be boundaries in a multi-disciplinary team.”

To anyone who’s considering the 
profession, Emilio says, “Go for it! One, it’s a profession where you can really develop, if you want to — though I know nurses who remained bedside nurses from their youth till they were 60 because that’s what they enjoyed doing. Two, it’s a passport. You can go into nursing and you’d find a job anywhere in the world. Basically, if you’re someone who can empathise with people or advocate for those in distress, nursing can be an undeniably fulfilling career path — whatever your gender may be.”

And if you come from a part of the world that insists on making the distinction between who can and cannot become a nurse, take Paul Flowers’ advice to Dr Elliot as he walks away in that scene: “Lighten up, Elliot,” he says, evenly. “Stop worrying so much about what 
everybody else thinks.” karen@khaleejtimes.com

Quoted

“To do what nobody else will do, a way that nobody else can do, in spite of all we go through; is to be a nurse.” Rawsi Williams

“Whether a person is a male or female, a nurse is a nurse.” Gary Veale

“When you’re a nurse you know that every day you will touch a life or a life will touch yours.” Author Unknown

“Nurses dispense comfort, compassion, and caring without even a prescription.” Val Saintsbury

“Nurses are angels in comfortable shoes.”Author Unknown


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