The Caring Economy

Jeremy Kaufamn works as a nurse at Peace Health Sacred Heart Medical Center in Eugene, OR (fc). When he’s not working in the emergency room he spends his time teaching the next generation of nursing students at Lane Community College.

Words by Ryan Nguyen

Jeremy Kaufman is an emergency room nurse. When he talks about his job, the enthusiasm in his voice is palpable, radiating a warmth that makes the others around him want to smile. Being a male nurse does come with some challenges, but for him, facing those challenges is worth it.

“The thing that keeps me so happy and so excited as a nurse is — and I think this is true of men and women, but maybe men in a different way — is that it has opened me up both to the humanity of others and to my own humanity,” Kaufman said.

Kaufman is one of a growing number of men joining the nursing profession, across the country and here in Oregon. According to a 2016 report by the Oregon Center for Nursing, a non-profit organization that researches Oregon’s nursing workforce, about 12 percent of registered nurses in Oregon are male. That’s up from 25 years ago when just it was just 9 percent. Nationally, about 10 percent of nurses are male.

Kaufman said that some patients are surprised when they come into the hospital and are greeted by a male nurse, but working with all kinds of people is just part of the job.

“That’s part of being a nurse in general: meeting people where they are and accepting people where they are,” Kaufman said. “Everybody has preconceptions, every patient has their stigmas and patients can stigmatize male nurses or female doctors or whoever. But it already comes with the territory, and accepting that is what my job is, so it doesn’t really bother me.”

Christopher Olivas, a nursing student at Lane Community College, said he realized that he wanted to be a nurse because of his caring instincts.

“I know it sounds cliché, but I really do like to help people,” Olivas said. “I get it from my mom; she’s very nurturing.”

Olivas said his family and friends were generally supportive and didn’t doubt that he could become a nurse because of his gender. Olivas was a nurse in an elderly home, and he said he generally did not feel stigmatized either.

“You get really close with a lot of your patients and even their family,” Olivas said. “And to gain that trust, that’s powerful.”

On the job

While Kaufman and Olivas haven’t encountered pushback for being men in the field, they say some daily tasks may be more difficult for male nurses. Kaufman said his job involves a lot of physical contact, and some patients may be uncomfortable with having a male nurse tend to them.

“Everybody that comes into your care, you’re touching them, and you’re exposed to all of their fluids and all of their physical humanness,” Kaufman said.

Inserting a urinary catheter into a patient is one of the most intimate moments that nurses have with patients, and Kaufman said that this process can be uncomfortable for both nurses and patients. Touch can make patients sensitive, but it can also be soothing. “You can use touch as a tool to show you’re caring and to help people,” Kaufman said. “I think that’s been probably the most wonderful thing about being a nurse and especially being a male nurse.”

Ultimately, Kaufman said, nursing is all about building those interpersonal relationships.

“At the center of it all is this human interaction between the nurse and the patient, and every nurse brings their own individuality to that, and every patient does as well, so each interaction is unique,” Kaufman said.

Economics of nursing

Studies show that the number of men who are going into the nursing field is slowly but steadily increasing for economic reasons, according to the OCN. A 2016 OCN report states that the demand for nurses in Oregon is only going to increase over the next decade, especially as the aging population grows and more healthcare services are needed.

“We have the one-two punch of an aging population in the state and an aging workforce,” OCN Executive Director Jana Bitton said.

And with growing demand often comes better pay. According to 2017 data from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, Oregon ranks as the fifth-highest-paying state for nurses, with an average annual wage of $88,770. Nationally, nurses make an average annual wage of $70,000. Plus, according to the Gallup polling organization, nurses have been the most trusted profession in the U.S. for 16 years in a row.

Still, Bitton said she anticipates a nursing shortage in years to come. One big reason is the lack of training.

According to a 2015 OCN report, the industry has struggled to find enough nursing instructors. The report found that between 2011 and 2014 “almost 70 percent of nurse faculty positions were vacated at some point during the three-year survey period.” Bitton said that this may exacerbate the nursing shortage.

“The only way you’re going to be able to produce the nurses is by educating them,” Bitton said. “If we don’t have faculty to actually educate those nurses to be as excellent as we want them to be, then we’re running a risk of not being able to have that healthcare access that people need.”

Training is especially critical because many people come to nursing as a second career. Bitton traces the growth in male nursing to the economic recession of 2008, after which more men began to see healthcare as a viable or even second career option.

“Nursing is one of those professions where it really isn’t like TV,” Bitton said. “You’re not going to just get a nursing degree and necessarily go to a hospital and work in a hospital…You’ve got so many opportunities and so many different pathways that you can choose.”

Nursing wasn’t Kaufman’s first career choice, either. After he graduated from college, Kaufman worked for the United States Forest Service as a biology researcher and was also a part-time firefighter.

“I… didn’t take my education quite as seriously,” said Kaufman, who bounced around from career to career. “And certainly didn’t see myself in a career where I would have the responsibility of people’s lives or their health or their well-being on my shoulder. I didn’t want to have anything to do with that.”

Today, in addition to being a nurse, Kaufman is also a nursing instructor at Lane Community College, an example of one of the alternate pathways that Bitton mentioned. For Olivas, his mission to become a nurse is all about building meaningful relationships with patients. He said that that’s the essential component to the job — no matter if you’re a nurse who’s male or female.

“That’s powerful to know that somebody really has that trust in you,” he said. “You’re going to be there for the family, you’re going to advocate for them, you’re going to know what to do and you’re gonna know how to take care of them. I can’t really explain it. It just feels good.”