The Shift follows Theresa Brown through a twelve hour shift at the urban teaching hospital where she works as a registered nurse. Brown’s thoughtful and insightful observations provide an inside look at the challenges of nursing on an oncology unit, as she takes care of patients like frail Mr. Hampton, whose cutting-edge treatment may kill him, and anxious Candace, awaiting a stem cell transplant.
This nonfiction narrative goes into great depth and detail about hospital routine and the stress it puts on patients, nurses and doctors. The book is also, surprisingly, filled with literary references, from writers as varied as William Blake, Abraham Verghese, and Rudyard Kipling. Brown, a former English professor who writes an occasional column on nursing issues for The New York Times, deftly inserts these to lend meaning to certain poignant moments, such as when she likens William Carlos Williams’ poem “The Red Wheelbarrow” to a favorite patient’s candy dish, each capable of teaching us something about what is important in life.
The pace of the book allows for these detours, as well as detours into some of Brown’s memories, worries and fears. But what comes through most clearly are the empathy and compassion she feels for her patients, as she searches for an understanding of the meaning of health, illness and caring. Brown laments the way things used to be, while simultaneously accepting how much they have changed. A cancer diagnosis is no longer the death sentence it once was for the patients we encounter in The Shift, yet Brown must still help patients face the end of their lives, her most challenging yet ultimately most rewarding task.
To Brown, nursing is like “putting your shoulder to a rock and pushing it uphill.” Throughout the book she keeps the reader turning the pages with the possibility that at any time the rock might slip and roll back down the hill. During this twelve hour shift, it never does. —Priscilla Mainardi
Priscilla Mainardi is a graduate of the University of Pennsylvania and Rutgers University where she received a MFA in creative writing in 2012 while continuing to practice as a registered nurse. Often awed by her patients’ ability to cope with dire health issues, she is interested in exploring the ways in which narrative can connect caregivers and patients in a stronger bond to foster healing, and in the contributions of nurses to the field of narrative medicine. Her short story, "Pretending Not to Know," appeared in the Spring 2014 Intima. Mainardi joined the editorial board of Intima: A Journal of Narrative Medicine in Fall 2015.