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Critical Care: A New Nurse Faces Death, Life, and Everything in Between [Hardcover]

Theresa Brown
4.4 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (62 customer reviews)

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Book Description

June 1, 2010 0061791555 978-0061791550 1

“Among all the recent books on medicine, Critical Care stands alone.“ — Pauline Chen, author of Final Exam

“A must read for anyone who wants to understand healthcare. Extraordinary.” — Elizabeth Cohen, MPH, CNN Senior Medical Correspondent

Critical Care is the powerful and absorbing memoir of Theresa Brown—a regular contributor to the New York Times blog “Well”—about her experiences during the first year on the job as an oncology nurse; in the process, Brown sheds brilliant light on issues of mortality and meaning in our lives.

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Editorial Reviews


“Theresa Brown’s arresting account of life on the wards offers palpable testimony that nurses are first responders and primary healers in our times of crises.” (Mehmet Oz, MD, author of YOU: The Owner's Manual health series)

“If Theresa Brown tends her patients as well as she tells her story, they are lucky patients indeed. This absorbing dispatch from the front lines of medical care captures the daily travails and triumphs of nursing with humor, compassion, and sometimes terrifying immediacy.” (Julie Salamon, author of Hospital and The Devil’s Candy)

“Critical Care is a gift from an English-teacher-turned-nurse who writes from a deeply human context about her first year in a hospital oncology ward...A book of stirring stories about how we live, care for the sick and die.” (Richard M. Cohen, author of Blindsided and Strong at the Broken Places)

“Brown shows us what it means to be a nurse and helps us understand that nurses need as much intensive care as their patients. Sometimes more!” (Suzanne Gordon, author of Nursing Against the Odds)

“A beautifully written account of a nurse’s first year on the wards, a medical memoir that combines lyricism and compassion with searing honesty and well-timed laugh-out-loud wit...I loved this book.” (Pauline Chen, author of Final Exam)

“A must read for anyone who wants to understand healthcare. This extraordinary book will open your eyes to the reality of nursing. If you or your loved one ends up in the hospital, you’ll wish you had someone like Nurse Brown at your side.” (Elizabeth Cohen, MPH, CNN Senior Medical Correspondent)

From the Back Cover

"Doctors heal, or try to, but as nurses we step into the breach, figure out what needs to be done for any given patient today, on this shift, and then, with love and exasperation, do it as best as we can."—from Critical Care

"At my job, people die," writes Theresa Brown, capturing both the burden and the singular importance of her profession. Brown, a former English professor at Tufts University, chronicles here her first year as an R.N. in medical oncology. As she does so, Brown illuminates the unique role of nurses in health care, giving us a deeply moving portrait of the day-to-day work nurses do: caring for the person who is ill, not just the illness itself.

Critical Care takes us with Brown as she struggles to tend to her patients' needs, both physical (the rigors of chemotherapy) and emotional (their late-night fears). Along the way, we see the work nurses do to fight for their patients' dignity, in spite of punishing treatments and an often uncaring hospital bureaucracy. We also see how a twelve-hour day of caring for the seriously ill gives Brown herself a deeper appreciation of what it means to be alive. Ultimately, this is a book about embracing life, whether in times of sickness or health.

As she takes us into the place where patients and nurses meet, Brown shows us the power of human connection in the face of mortality. She does so with a keen sense of humor and remarkable powers of observation, making Critical Care a powerful contribution to the literature of medicine.

Product Details

  • Hardcover: 208 pages
  • Publisher: HarperOne; 1 edition (June 1, 2010)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0061791555
  • ISBN-13: 978-0061791550
  • Product Dimensions: 5.5 x 0.8 x 8.2 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 9.6 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.4 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (62 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #608,223 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews
43 of 48 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars A Passable but Unexceptional Nursing Memoir June 16, 2010
Theresa Brown has made a mid-life career change, trading in her job as an English professor in order to begin anew in nursing. "I liked teaching, and at times I found in enjoyable enough, but I never felt passionately about it, for better or for worse," says Brown of her previous career, and given the serviceable but bland prose in which she tells her story one is well able to believe that English was never her passion.

Brown is extremely enthusiastic about her new job, and she is proud of what she does. Perhaps a little too proud. Her descriptions of grateful patients and her own tenacious, mongoose-like determination to do absolutely anything for them may give more modest readers a twinge of displaced embarrassment. Throughout the book she shares a number of patient stories with accompanying philosophizing. The stories of suffering oncology patients are inherently touching; her philosophy is of the Chicken Soup for the Soul variety, certainly deeply felt but nothing out of the common way.

The book, despite being written by a medical professional, is sprinkled with inaccurate statements and downright false medical information. According to Brown, cholera causes lethal dehydration that "only IV fluids can control". In reality, literally millions of lives have been saved with oral rehydration therapy as a treatment for cholera. She says, with "100 percent certainty", that no doctor in the United States ever collects feces for occult blood sampling. This actually happens quite regularly during rectal exams in family practice, and in many other circumstances. These may seem like minor quibbles but one does not like to see this type of factual error, especially as Brown heavily emphasizes the importance of patient education.
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19 of 22 people found the following review helpful
Countless books, movies and television dramas have been devoted to the lives of doctors, but what about those unsung heroes: nurses? Nurses provide the vast majority of patient care: from administering treatment to monitoring vitals to cleaning up accidents to counseling patients and patient advocacy. Still little is known about the professional lives of these vital medical providers.

Stepping into this void is nurse-author Theresa Brown in Critical Care who documents her first year as a R.N. in the oncology ward of a large teaching hospital. Brown, a former Tufts University English professor, is better equipped than most to share the real day to day lives of modern nurses. Brown explains her mid-life career change from the ivy walls of academia to the stressed halls of the nursing floor as a choice for a more chaotic, but meaningful professional life.

Critical Care is a beautifully written insider's account of what really happens at a present-day hospital. And the truth is somewhere between the gloried angels of Marcus Welby and the pill-popping antics of Nurse Jackie. Some nurses pull rank and wield authority like a weapon. Some nurses help their colleagues and bond over cups of coffee. Some physicians expect to be treated like demi-gods. Some physicians treat the nurses and their patients with respect. Some patients and their families harangue their caregivers. Some patients praise their nurses as "angels." Every story is, however, compelling.

As Brown confesses:

Anyone hearing a true nursing story will not want to believe it. The level of vulnerability, dependence, and fear experienced by patients in the hospital remains far outside the realm of normal, everyday life, and none of us want to imagine ourselves in that position.
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10 of 12 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars An excellent read June 1, 2010
My favorite books, whether novels or memoirs, are those that allow me to connect with the narrator, that speak with a distinctive voice, that offer a deeper understanding of our human condition, and that leave me feeling enriched by the encounter. This beautifully written book delivered on all fronts. I follow the author's columns on The Well (The New York Times's online health feature), so I was eager to read her in a more expanded format. I'm so glad I did. The whole book is an excellent read. The book gives us a fascinating view into Theresa Brown's introductory year as an oncology nurse, complete with unexpected professional and personal challenges that she handles with thoughtfulness and wit. I especially liked the way the chapter "A Day on the Floor" powerfully and effectively brings home the multi-layered experience of nursing, even to readers (like me) whose only medical experience has been as an occasional patient. I found myself reading many passages aloud to my husband. This is one of those books you want to share with your friends for purely selfish reasons, just so you can have the opportunity to discuss it together.
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4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars "You left teaching English for this?" June 27, 2010
In Theresa Brown's "Critical Care," she recounts her mid-life move from academia to an oncology ward. Brown, who holds a Ph.D. in English from the University of Chicago and taught writing at Tufts University, retrained and became a registered nurse who works with cancer patients in a Pittsburgh hospital. Brown admits, "I don't think even I fully understood my career change," but "nursing just felt right." She relishes the opportunity to reach out to patients who are frightened, confused, and vulnerable. Even when she doesn't have a comforting message to impart, she tries to convey that "whatever happens, I am here with you."

Many books have been written by doctors and nurses about why they chose their profession, what their training was like, the memorable patients whom they met, and the ways in which medicine changed them. This work covers the same territory. In clear and lucid prose, Brown explains how having her three children changed her outlook on life. She wanted to do a job that combined "technical skill and knowledge with love." So Brown gave up summers off for the "messy and stressful" work of a floor nurse specializing in medical oncology.

The author invites us along on a typical work day during which she deals with anxious men and women, some of whom are in great pain. Her patients suffer from a variety of symptoms such as incontinence, nausea, bleeding, lack of mobility, and an inability to breathe properly. Brown must endure long shifts during which tremendous demands are made on her time. She is expected to handle complicated orders, correctly dispense a variety of medications (including chemo), interact with colleagues effectively, record meticulous notes, and communicate with her patients' relatives.
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Most Recent Customer Reviews
5.0 out of 5 stars Five Stars
I recommend this book to everyone. What an eye opening story, that contains plenty of humor.
Published 8 days ago by Katie Gniadek
4.0 out of 5 stars Captivating book,but sad
Well written,obviously since the author is a former English professor. Interesting but sad. My only negative comment would be that sometimes it got a little too technical with... Read more
Published 1 month ago by Dina Kailer
5.0 out of 5 stars The Critical Care of Nursing
The true story of a nurse in the critical care field. I look forward to finishing this one and seeing what I like, love, and possibly don't look forward to if I enter this field of... Read more
Published 3 months ago by Sheena L. Brown
4.0 out of 5 stars Four Stars
It's a good read for nursing students, although it has nothing to do with critical care nursing.
Published 3 months ago by BEG
5.0 out of 5 stars I laughed. I cried. Read it cover to ...
I laughed. I cried. Read it cover to cover. So many relatable moments as I thought about my mom who spent two years between the hospital and rehab and back to the hospital... Read more
Published 3 months ago by Amazon Customer
5.0 out of 5 stars Five Stars
Published 4 months ago by ???????
3.0 out of 5 stars I would love to have Theresa Brown as my nurse
I would love to have Theresa Brown as my nurse. This book demonstrates her commitment to her patients and to an ideal of patient care that no longer seems to exist. Read more
Published 5 months ago by Babs Wins
5.0 out of 5 stars Five Stars
Great product & time received!
Published 6 months ago by Michael F. Gerity
5.0 out of 5 stars Totally engaging READ!
I had trouble putting this book down. I really felt like I was right there at the hospital with the author and her patients. Read more
Published 7 months ago by SUSAN B. DEVERS
5.0 out of 5 stars New nurses read this.
This helped me relax a bit as a new nurse.
Published 7 months ago by motietje
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More About the Author

I am a PhD in English and a former College Professor who became a nurse after having twins. Many people find this a strange choice, but I really feel born to nursing, and didn't feel that way about being a Professor. CRITICAL CARE is my first book and it describes my first year of nursing. Like the subtitle says, I explore life, death, and everything in between, including how hard and how rewarding the job really is. I also write about nursing for the NY TIMES. Check me out at

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