Men enter nursing for a range of reasons and perhaps it’s unusual, but I decided on nursing at an early age.
It was shortly after I had vomited blood. I was seven years old, had just had a tonsillectomy and the nurse looking after me wasn’t very kind. This experience had a strange and significant impact on me: I thought I could be a nurse because I could find it within myself to be kind when people were feeling unwell.
This was reinforced a little later when I was visiting one of my aunts. She was in her 40s, propped up by pillows on the sofa bed in my gran’s sitting room breathing laboriously. She was cheerful, comfortable and dying.
Always particular about her appearance, her district nurse made sure she looked her best. But I was aware the nurse was doing much more than that. She was dealing with lots of drugs and other technical things which made me curious, but I was too shy to ask about them. Seeing her in action made me realise nurses could be kind and clever. She made this sort of intelligent caring look so easy – her expertise hid complexity.
Looking back, I feel privileged to have had these two experiences when I was young because it opened my eyes to nursing at home as well as in a hospital. Because of this I developed a strong sense that nursing was not just about hospitals. Real nursing is about the individual who needs care, which shouldn’t stereotypically be defined by the setting.
I had no notion that nursing would be considered an unusual career. Gender simply didn’t occur to me. It was only when I actually applied to be a student that I came across barriers. My nursing school of choice was advertising for “single women only” – and this was after the Sex Discrimination Act had come into force. So I decided to challenge it. They accepted me and with no real explanation about the advert.
Since no men had trained in nursing at this school before, it was not surprising that there were no men who were staff nurses. There were a few who had joined the staff from elsewhere but they were generally more senior. I therefore had an early impression that I could progress to senior posts in management, education and research, because I could see role models doing those jobs. This helped me plan my career and, as a third-year student, I decided I wanted to be a director of nursing. And that is how I ended my NHS career – not that it was easy to get there. I was turned down for a number of director posts before I was successful.
I could see nursing as a career option at an early age – not all boys can. It was opportunistic that I saw nurses in action who influenced my career trajectory. It helped that I saw one nurse I didn’t want to emulate and one nurse I did. I have continued to look for both positive and negative role models. It has been just as important for me to work out which characteristics I should avoid copying, as well as modelling myself on those who inspire me.
My life experiences helped but opening up opportunities for boys to see its breadth and potential might influence them to consider a career in nursing – and, of course, they also have to have the right values and aptitude.
Regardless of gender, those who choose nursing should be nurtured to progress as I was. I had role models and mentors who helped create my chances to learn, develop, be promoted and benefit from a hugely rewarding career – opportunities that should apply to every nurse.
David Foster is chair, Foundation of Nursing Studies and The Lindsay Leg Club Foundation, and a Queen’s Nursing Institute council member