Reluctant Hero / graphite, charcoal, and pastel on paper / by Julianna Paradisi 2017

I first learned the effect a man’s tears have on my emotions from the parents of my young patients when I was a pediatric intensive care nurse.

I am not unaffected by the tears of a woman, but in the PICU the tears of the mothers differed in nature from the tears of the fathers.

A mother with a hospitalized child will cry, and when overwhelmed, she will break down. But in the PICU, more often than not, she took a tissue from the box I handed her, wiped her eyes, breathed deeply, and then put on a brave face to protect her child from knowing her fear and concern over his welfare.

When the father cried, it was an admission of helplessness. His problem-solving toolbox was empty. The tears represented feelings of personal failure, powerlessness to protect his child and family from disease or trauma. His criteria for being a father, or a man, was eroded.

These displays of total soul-brokenness undid me every time.

However, in my 30 years of nursing, I never connected such feelings of failure and brokenness to the experiences of my male counterparts in nursing. Sure, I saw their tears as we fought side by side to save a patient, but I was unaware of the depth of the responsibility they shoulder.

I experienced this epiphany during another multi-staff discussion at the hospital where I work. I wrote here not long ago about the first one I attended, which I’ve since learned was part of the Schwartz Rounds program. (As an aside, if your hospital is not participating in Schwartz Rounds, I strongly recommend they consider doing so.)

In this second, standing room only presentation, a panel of nurses, physicians, and nurse managers discussed the case of a critically ill patient, who incidentally suffered from mental illness manifesting in violent behavior.

The purpose of the discussion was acknowledging the impact of the situation on staff and the department. The information was what I’d expected to hear,  until a nurse, the man assigned to the patient, told his story.

He began by explaining the compassion he felt for the patient. He continued, saying that as a man in nursing, he is disproportionately assigned such patients. He expressed the sense of responsibility he felt for the safety of his fellow nurses, predominantly women, because he is a man. How long, he wondered, could he avoid burnout from this extra expectation? He worried about his own physical safety, and about sustaining longevity in his nursing career.

He started to cry.

Seated in the audience, so did I.

Then other men in the audience stood, telling similar stories, each brought to tears expressing their inability to continue meeting the expectation of always taking the dangerous, intimidating patients so their female coworkers felt safe. They described the emotional trauma they experienced when physically restraining a violent patient.

A woman stood up, introducing herself as a charge nurse. She admitted assigning the violent or intimidating patients to the men on her unit as a common practice. Tearfully, she asked forgiveness. Like me, she was unaware of the extra burden our male counterparts carry on their shifts.

In benediction, a chaplain addressed those working at the bedside, perhaps especially the men in nursing, as “reluctant heroes.”

A friend who was also in the audience later called her son, an ER nurse in another city. She told me he responded, “On any given shift, I’m 50 percent security, and 50 percent caregiver.”

We did not solve the problem during the one-hour discussion, but we came away with more compassion, and better understanding, of what our male colleagues, reluctant heroes, endure while caring for the health and safety of others.