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BOOK REVIEW

A nurse finds her real voice in lyrical memoir

By Suzanne Koven
July 25, 2011

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There’s a nursing shortage in America’s hospitals - and on its bookshelves as well. Walt Whitman and Louisa May Alcott wrote of their experiences as nurses during the Civil War and, in the century and a half since, there have been a few novels and memoirs by and/or about nurses. But nurses have not enjoyed the recognition in modern literature that physicians have. As yet, no nurse-writer has been as nearly as popular as Oliver Sacks, Atul Gawande, or Abraham Verghese. Because of this - but not only because of this - Mary Jane Nealon’s superb new memoir, “Beautiful Unbroken: One Nurse’s Life,’’ is especially welcome.

An award-winning poet and nonfiction writer, Nealon recounts both her life story and her nursing career in this lyrical and absorbing book, but the two are not really separable. She grew up in an Irish-Catholic family in Jersey City, N.J., the daughter of a police captain and an emotionally reserved housewife. As a child Nealon longed to be a hero, like her father, and to win her mother’s approval. These twin desires, to save people and to be loved, govern her personal and professional lives and are often at odds with a third desire: to find her own voice. Whether she is nursing a dying family member or a cancer patient, having a love affair or writing poetry, Nealon never strays far from the central question of her life: how to give fully to others without losing oneself. Or, as she puts it, “What do we owe each other?’’

Nealon faced this question at an early age. When she was barely out of her teens, her younger brother developed a rare and aggressive malignancy. Inexplicably, even to herself, she elected, upon graduation from nursing school, to move far away from home during her brother’s last months. Decades later she experienced the same urge to flee after 9/11, when she witnessed the towers fall from her apartment across the Hudson. Other nurses headed for ground zero to set up tent clinics for rescue crews. Nealon headed for Montana.

But more often Nealon faced the suffering of others unflinchingly. She nursed people with HIV in the 1980s, when AIDS was an invariably fatal illness and many health-care workers refused even to touch those infected with it. She cared for homeless men in the Bowery. She invited her father to come live with her so she could comfort him as he was dying.

Nealon neither congratulates herself for these acts of compassion nor excoriates herself for her lapses. One of the many merits of “Beautiful Unbroken’’ is its restraint. Perhaps because she began her writing career as a poet (she’s written two volumes) Nealon’s prose is spare and haunting.

“Beautiful Unbroken’’ is saturated with grief but also with joyful appreciation for the everyday, which nurses, especially, are privileged to witness: an AIDS patient’s luxuriant blond hair, a dying man’s eyes “exploding with blue happiness at all the family that came and went.’’

In her 40s, after her longtime lover was injured in a catastrophic accident and while her father lay dying, Nealon completed a graduate program in writing. As a writer, Nealon at last found the words to express a lifetime of personal and professional loss. But Nealon’s writing is not mere catharsis. As the best memoirists do, Nealon holds her own experience up as a mirror for the reader. A mirror, and also a challenge. Again and again she asks herself - and us - to question the limits of empathy:

“What is our responsibility when we stand alongside each other? At the elevator, at a bus stop, when ordering a bacon and tomato sandwich on rye, buying a movie ticket?’’

“Beautiful Unbroken’’ convinces us that nurses, whose daily lives are steeped in both suffering and compassion, are in a unique position to pose such questions. It makes us wish for more literature by nurses - especially by this one.

Suzanne Koven is a primary care internist at Massachusetts General Hospital and writes the monthly In Practice column for the Globe. She can be reached at inpracticemd@gmail.com.

BEAUTIFUL UNBROKEN:

One Nurse’s Life

By Mary Jane Nealon

Graywolf, 212 pp., paperback, $15