I Wasn't Strong Like This When I Started Out

True Stories of Becoming a Nurse

Edited by Lee Gutkind

This collection of true narratives reflects the dynamism and diversity of nurses, who provide the first vital line of patient care. Here, nurses remember their first “sticks,” first births, and first deaths, and reflect on what gets them through long, demanding shifts, and keeps them in the profession.

The stories reveal many voices from nurses at different stages of their careers: One nurse-in-training longs to be trusted with more “important” procedures, while another questions her ability to care for nursing home residents. An efficient young emergency room nurse finds his life and career irrevocably changed by a car accident. A nurse practitioner wonders whether she has violated professional boundaries in her care for a homeless man with AIDS, and a home care case manager is the sole attendee at a funeral for one of her patients.

What connects these stories is the passion and strength of the writers, who struggle against burnout and bureaucracy to serve their patients with skill, empathy, and strength.

Praise for I Wasn't Strong Like This When I Started Out

"Beautifully wrought."
~ New York Times

"If you can afford reading only one book of non-fictional medical narratives this year, this book should be it!"
~ The Yale Journal for Humanities in Medicine

"...Required reading for anyone beginning a career in healthcare—nurses and physicians alike.”
~ Margaret Overton, MD, author of Good in a Crisis

"A startling collection of stories from the bedside."
~ Paul Austin, author of Something for the Pain: Compassion and Burnout in the ER

Table of Contents

Introduction: The Anonymous, Irreplaceable Nurse Lee Gutkind
Foreword: The Art of Meeting Patient Need Karen Wolk Feinstein
Hitting the Bone Eddie Lueken
The Haunting Thomas Schwarz
Becoming a Nurse Laura DeVaney
Next of Kin Josephine Ensign
Healing Wang Jie's Bottom L. Darby-Zhao
Zeitgeber Denise Elliott
A Long Night's Journey into Day Theresa Brown
Don't Ever Forget Me Christopher Lance Coleman
Heart Lessons Diane Kraynak
Docking in Togo Jennifer Binger
I See You Tilda Shalof
Listening and Other Lifesaving Measures Karla Theilen
Careening toward Reunion Nina Gaby
Nurse Nora at Nineteen Nora Casper
Four Sticks Janice Dvorak
Messiah, Not Otherwise Specified Janet Gool
All Alone and Afraid: Becoming a Person through Nursing Anna Gersman
Individually Identifiable Pamela Baker
Approaching Death Kimberly A. Condon
The Nurses Whispered Patricia A. Nugent
Becoming Lori Mulvihill


Pamela Baker

Pamela Baker received her MFA in creative writing from the University of Central Florida in Orlando, where she currently works as a nurse.... read more

Theresa Brown

Theresa Brown, BSN, RN, OCN, is a clinical nurse and sole contributor to the New York Times opinion column "Bedside." She is the... read more

Nora Casper

Nora Casper is a native of Hastings-on-Hudson, New York, and a 2010 graduate of the Masters School in Dobbs Ferry. She is pursuing a... read more

Kimberly A. Condon

Kimberly A. Condon graduated from the University of Wisconsin Madison and has spent twenty years in the field of medicine, both as a nurse... read more

Christopher Lance Coleman

Dr. Christopher Lance Coleman is the Fagin Term Associate Professor of Nursing and Multicultural Diversity and is codirector of the center... read more

L. Darby-Zhao

L. Darby-Zhao has spent twelve years working on women and children's health initiatives in China. She holds a master's degree in mother and... read more

Laura DeVaney

Laura DeVaney has been an RN for four years and works on a radical head and neck unit in Indianapolis. She secretly favors patients who are... read more

Janice Dvorak

Janice Dvorak received an MFA in creative writing from Emerson College. Her work has appeared in Willow Springs, Superstition Review, and... read more

Denise Elliott

Denise Elliott is a registered nurse currently working in palliative care; she has spent the past twenty-four years working in both... read more

Josephine Ensign

Josephine Ensign teaches health policy at the University of Washington in Seattle. Her literary nonfiction essays have appeared in The Sun... read more

Karen Wolk Feinstein

Karen Wolk Feinstein, PhD is president and CEO of the Jewish Healthcare Foundation (JHF) and its two supporting organizations, the... read more

Nina Gaby

Nina Gaby is a writer, visual artist, and advanced practice nurse who specializes in addiction and psychiatry. Her essays, fiction, prose... read more

Anna Gersman

Anna Gersman is fascinated by the power of storytelling—particularly by the stories of nurses. She works full time as a nurse care manager... read more

Janet Gool

Janet Gool lives with her husband, Yochanan, and the youngest of their three children in Beit Shemesh, Israel. This is her first published... read more

Diane Kraynak

Diane Kraynak is a pediatric nephrology nurse practitioner. She is working on a collection of nursing essays, from which "Heart Lessons,"... read more

Eddie Lueken

A nurse for thirty years, Eddie Lueken received her MFA in creative writing from Spalding University. Her essays have appeared in The... read more

Lori Mulvihill

Lori Mulvihill lives, writes, and works as an RN in Colorado, whose Rocky Mountains and blue skies she enjoys with her husband and their... read more

Patricia A. Nugent

Patricia A. Nugent is the author of They Live On: Saying Goodbye to Mom and Dad, a compilation of vignettes portraying the stages of caring... read more

Thomas Schwarz

Thomas Schwartz, RN, has been published in the New York Times Magazine, Newsweek, the Journal of the American Medical Association, Writer's... read more

Tilda Shalof

Tilda Shalof has been a nurse for nearly thirty years. She is author of the bestselling A Nurse's Story, which has been translated into... read more

Ann Swindell

Ann Swindell received her MFA from Seattle Pacific University and teaches writing courses at Wheaton College. She lives west of Chicago... read more

Karla Theilen

Karla Theilen currently resides in Billings, Montana, where she can see the Beartooth Mountains on a clear day. Her work has been featured... read more


"Expect to be moved"


March 15, 2013

Expect to be moved by this anthology of tales from the front line, written by veteran nurses and nurses-in-training [...] It's easy... read more

"Beautifully wrought"

The New York Times

May 20, 2013

[I Wasn't Strong Like This When I Started Out] is beautifully wrought, but more significantly a reminder that these “semi-... read more

"A gem!"

Yale Journal for Humanities in Medicine

June 5, 2013

Before reading the book I had the maximum amount of respect and appreciation towards nurses. After reading the book, it quadrupled. If... read more


The Anonymous, Irreplaceable Nurse Lee Gutkind

I have written five books about the medical... read more

Becoming Lori Mulvihill

The hospital feels larger than life. Oppressive... read more

Approaching Death Kimberly A. Condon

A child is dead. There is a terrifying, soul-... read more

A Long Night's Journey Into Day Theresa Brown

Rose, a mother in her forties with young kids,... read more