Thursday, March 21, 2013

How Does a Nurse Become a Writer?

I'm often asked how a nurse becomes a writer, usually by other nurses who would like to take their career in another direction. They hear that I'm a "nurse writer" and they want to learn more. I've written about this a few times and each time, I admit that I don't have much to offer in the way of advice.

I wrote about my identity crisis as I made the transition from nurse to writer, for the American Society of Journalists and Authors (ASJA). In Being a Writer Doesn't Mean I'm No Longer a Nurse, I talk about the change in my life as I reconciled my two identities, that of nurse and that of writer. It wasn't a fast change, I can assure you. There was a lot of angst involved in resetting how I thought of myself.

I still feel guilty sometimes that I'm not working as a nurse in a clinical environment. Quebec, as are many parts of the world, is experiencing a nursing shortage and I know that they can use all the help they can get. Every so often, I do go back into the system to work for a while, to stay up-to-date and keep up my skills. But as the years go by, I find myself more disassociated with the system and more unwilling to put up with the bad sides of the job.

Nursing is challenging. Nursing is rewarding. There are things you can do as a nurse that can help change a life. But it's also hard on the body and soul. The politics that don't allow nurses to think for themselves, to have to be the target of unhappy patients or families regarding issues or policies over which they have no control - they all get to you. Physically, working on your feet - or should I say running on your feet - every shift without much time for breaks, shift work, working on holidays and weekends without realistic extra compensation, and mandatory (yes, mandatory) overtime at many places - they all get to you too. And despite all that, I miss it. Nursing is part of who I am and I'm grateful for all I've done and all I learned. But now, my nursing is part of my writing, which is now who I am and what I do.

Tuesday, March 19, 2013

AHCJ Conference - Some of What I Learned

I had the great fortune of being in Boston last week, attending the Association of Healthcare Journalists (AHCJ) conference. There was so much information there that it was a bit overwhelming, but in a good way. I have been to other writers' conferences (ASJA and PWAC, specifically), but this was my first time attending one held by this organization. And, although I respect and get a lot from ASJA and PWAC, this was the best conference for me by far. If you write about health or medicine, I strongly encourage you to check out AHCJ for its resources and support.

So much information!

The problem with such conferences is you want to be everywhere, hear everything and meet everyone during that short period and you know that you can't. So, when you pick which sessions you will attend, you hope you are choosing the best option for you and that you'll be able to get the missed information from fellow attendees, from the organization's site, or as with some conferences, on a DVD or CD.

The first day, I attended some sessions on social media, reporting on clinical studies, and shaping complex ideas into stories. All three were eye opening in different ways.

I use social media regularly, but not to the extent at which it is possible. While the session didn't go as far as I would have liked, I did pick up some great tips and learned of some new people to follow, who could teach me much more through their use of SM. The clinical studies session was about how the numbers in studies can be very misleading - and purposefully so sometimes. There was explanation on how to ensure that you figure this out before being led astray and suggestions on how to prevent doing it yourself.

The biggest take-away for me was that the medical journals were never meant for public consumption. The journals that publish the latest studies and discuss medical issues were established so those who work in the field would have an outlet, a place where they can exchange information. However, general media picked up on their existence, and now these journals are fodder for news stories, sometimes "breaking" news stories, when perhaps they shouldn't be.

My third and last session for the Thursday was more on the art of writing and tips on how to make your stories more compelling.


Friday brought more sessions, the first for me was on shaping topics that happen throughout the world to fit in your corner of the world. The first speaker spoke of tuberculosis (TB) and how it affects everyone in the world, not just the countries with major issues and major outbreaks. That was interesting in itself, but I was most interested in something else that was brought up: counterfeit drugs. The cost in terms of lives affected by counterfeit drugs was astounding. To tell you the truth, I was so naive that it never occurred to me that this would be such a serious issue. I can't imagine deliberately causing such harm to so many people across the world.

The second speaker took another approach and spoke of his engineering students who could - in the course of one semester - make a difference in lives on another continent. He showed slides of how his students put together an oxymeter, a machine that measures the oxygen level in blood without taking blood, using an old cell phone battery. This device cost under 100.00, instead of the thousands a new, fancier oxymeter would.

In this day and age of invention, production, FDA approval and everything else that goes along with it, the sense of accomplishment from inventing something can be long delayed. But these students, who also work on other projects, like better weight-bearing crutches, can see almost instant results from their work.

This session was followed by a craft session (pitching ideas to editors).


Although by Saturday, my brain was already exploding, there were more sessions to come. My first
was on hospital readmission rates and the efforts being made to lower them, followed by another craft session. My most interesting session of the day was after lunch. This was another session on clinical studies, discussing their necessity and how they worked. But the most interesting speaker on this panel was Linnea Duff, who writes the blog She spoke about why she participated in Stage I trials and what it did for her.

The last session I attended was on Sunday morning, before heading home. It was how to use PubMed and associated sites more effectively - something I needed and it was very valuable to me.

As you can see, there was A LOT of information and I only got to participate in a small part of it. I still have so much to learn.

Conferences are pricey and do take a lot out of you. You miss work days, so you will have to work hard before you leave for the conference and harder when you get back. They're exhausting. But, you get so much out of them. Connecting with like-minded (and not-so-like-minded) people, meeting those you admire, learning new things, and just absorbing the energy, are all so necessary when you work in a often-solitary profession like writing.

I'm glad that I went. I almost didn't. But I did go - and that is what counts.