The Shift, by Theresa Brown, RN

I have been fortunate enough to have only been admitted to hospital twice in my thirty years. Once at the age of five to have my tonsils removed, and once more at twenty five when my daughter was born. Both times it is not the doctors I remember, but the nurses. They are the ones that made me feel safe and cared for even as I refused to let them stick me with a needle (again, both times – I have an aversion to needles that is apparently worse than even the pain of contractions).

Theresa Brown, nurse and New York Times contributor, takes us through one shift at a hospital in The Shift. The book is made up of twelve chapters, each covering an hour of her shift at an urban hospital’s cancer ward. What could have been a plodding “day in the life of” story is in fact an absorbing tale that with masterful storytelling captures both the struggle of life and death, and the balance of a need to be empathetic and a need to get work done in a fast paced environment.

Throughout The Shift, Theresa attempts to remain the caring, comforting nurse her four patients need, while dealing with challenging doctor/nurse relationship protocols, demanding hospital procedures, difficult patients, and the bare minimum of food and breaks. It is eye opening, and by the end of the book my respect for nurses increased dramatically. Yes, doctors are the ones diagnosing and operating, but it is the nurses who are caring for a hospital’s patients the majority of their stay, and it is their vigilance that can save lives as well.

In a way, The Shift is something of a psychological study. Theresa is only human – she gets frustrated with her patients when they want to chat longer than she’d like, or when they insist on disinfecting the entire room themselves as they don’t trust hospital cleaners. But she is constantly questioning why patients behave the way they do. She strives to understand what they would be like in a normal situation, without cancer and the lack of control they have by being sick. It doesn’t make her any less tired, or annoyed, but it does help Theresa keep her upbeat optimism and empathy.

The Shift’s twelve chapters pack a lot in, and I almost felt wrung out myself by the end of it (possibly also because I read it all in one day). Insightful, with an engaging narrative that captures a single day in a hospital, The Shift will leave you with greater understanding of the inner workings of a hospital, and with more empathy for nurses that you could have imagined.


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JJ is a writer by night, & a Product Manager by day. She loves young adult and children’s fiction and is the co-founder of NZ Booklovers. She has a Masters in Creative Writing, and is an ex-English tutor. She lives in Auckland with her husband, daughter, and two chihuahuas.

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