Erik Oost, MFA, BSN, R.N.
Staff Nurse – New York Presbyterian
Hunter Bellevue School of Nursing Class January 2016
In March 2016 I received a license to practice nursing. Because I have devoted the past 10 years to a career in art, this marks a significant transition for me. During the course of nursing school, I have encountered many people who do not see a substantial connection between art and nursing. In fact, on the first day of my med-surg course, when we all introduced ourselves and revealed how our previous lives might inform our nursing practice, my instructor could only muster, “Mmmm…no help there” in response to my background in painting and literature. She was not being antagonistic. She simply could not see the value of the humanities in caring.
For this reason, I would like to clarify why I believe art and the humanities are tremendously beneficial to anyone in the field of nursing—and more importantly, to our patients.
But first, let me tell you how I discovered nursing: I realized nursing was my ideal career just before my father developed Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis (ALS). At the time, I had spent five years struggling to support myself as an artist in New York. In order to create and exhibit my artwork, I held several jobs that left me morally and intellectually unfulfilled. Dissatisfaction stirred old ambitions to work in healthcare. I started looking into medical fields and meeting with various clinicians. By the time my father noticed his first symptoms, the solution to my career dilemma had become obvious. Nursing stood out as my future profession.
Before college, my goal had been to be a physician, but I soon realized the lifestyle of a doctor would preclude serious art-making. Painting and drawing were lifelong passions I could not abandon. Instead of studying medicine I chose to pursue English and Art.
After receiving a Master of Fine Arts degree in painting in 2008, I moved to New York City to fuel my creativity. To support my work in the studio, I started a business as a home improvement contractor. I also worked as a childcare provider and tutor on a part-time basis.
It was exciting to build a small business but ultimately I reached a moral dilemma. My business primarily served the economically elite. This troubled me in light of New York’s income inequality. I desired a career through which I could provide a more essential service to my community, including people who had been marginalized.
In the same year, my younger brother’s decision to attend medical school rekindled an interest in human health. The subjects he studied unleashed my curiosity. I began reading health and science articles in my spare time. I became a nutrition enthusiast and realized that my appetite for learning about anatomy and physiology was voracious. Revisiting the idea of pursuing a health career, I discovered a desire to become a nurse.
To me, the transition felt natural because art provides a way to explore and celebrate what I find most interesting about living. It helps me appreciate the world in ways that rarely occur to us when we carry out our daily routines. As I see it, we have reached this state as a species (for better or for worse) because we can synthesize our experiences into new, imagined forms. These ideas become insights, solutions, theories, iPhones, or ECMO systems. They provide a cultural backdrop from which possibilities are limitless.
Art education hones skills in observation, visualization, critical thinking, and relentless problem-solving. You explore an idea for inspiration, see an image in your mind, sketch it, paint it, scrape it down and rework it until you have something that will continue to stimulate your imagination when it is finished. During my clinical rotations, I have seen nurses and their patients benefit from these skills every day. Nurses assess their patients, observe and gather data, and use critical thinking to build a picture of what is happening in the mind and body.
Perhaps more importantly in the long run, I believe a familiarity with the arts—including literature, music, dance, and theater—allows the nurse greater possibilities for developing a therapeutic relationship. During my clinical rotation in Labor & Delivery at Lenox Hill Hospital last winter, the nurse with whom I was paired advised me to take enough breaks from studying to follow sports and watch Game of Thrones and Empire. I confess I still need to watch Empire but I was already deep into the first two suggestions at the time. My supervisor’s point was that knowledge of pop culture can be used as icebreakers to accelerate that essential process of building trust in the patient.
In the nurse, familiarity with the arts nurtures the indispensible ability to feel empathy. To be clear, I believe nothing can substitute for the value of lived experience in this regard. Reading a novel about ALS could never have shown me what it is like to watch my father’s motor neurons deteriorate. But consider that a great author is able to lend you the experience of someone else’s mind. To collect these imagined experiences diversifies our notions of what it is like to live a life.
As nurses, we all value life enough to preserve it in strangers. Moreover, we strive to help them optimize its quality. Ideally, we do this without judgment. This can be very difficult when caring for someone who greets life in a radically different way from our own approach. Because of this enduring challenge and the risk of burnout it presents, why not build a little extra capacity for empathy into our daily routines by tasting some culture now and then? Why not nourish the parts of our brains that modern lifestyle tells us to neglect?
I feel like I still have everything to learn in this profession but I know enough to be certain that nursing is my calling. Or my other calling. Or maybe nursing is another dimension of the same calling I originally sensed in art. Whatever the case, I feel fortunate to have found nursing and the wonderful people it attracts—the dynamic members of Men In Nursing included, of course! To those of you whom I have met, I look forward to seeing you again at our chapter meetings. For the rest of you, I hope to meet you there!