The medical profession often is filled with myths, misconceptions and mystery. When people think of the health care profession, they often believe that doctors are the experts and that nurses don’t hold the same expertise. But, history can prove this myth as incorrect, as nurses often saved lives, delivered babies and healed the sick. Today, nurses often do more than this, as they administer anesthesia, prescribe pain management programs and create programs that make living better for many individuals across the globe. In reality, there isn’t a hospital, health care facility, clinic or long-term health care management program that can succeed without nurses.

Although most nurses cannot prescribe medications (many APNs, among other types of nurses, can prescribe medications), they are there to help carry out the doctor’s prescriptions. No matter if the doctor orders drugs or rehabilitative therapy, the nurse can help with side effects, symptoms and remedies as they work side-by-side with each patient. Nurses are present for almost every major milestone and challenge in life, including birth, accidents, injuries, surgery, mid-life changes and old age. Nursing is a profession, a career, and a lifestyle dedicated to assisting individuals, families, and communities in attaining, maintaining, and recovering optimal health. Nursing is both a science and an art that focuses on physical, mental, emotional and sometimes spiritual well being and quality of life.

This profession began as women helped other women with birthing and nursing a newborn baby. Known as “wet nurses” who cared for infants and sometimes “dry nurses” who cared for young children, these fifteenth-century women created a foundation for a profession where one person looked after another. As nursing evolved, nuns and the military became involved, providing care for those who could not care for themselves. This evolution led to more women becoming involved with religious organizations and wartime efforts to care for those who were sick and injured. It was from this maturing of the nursing profession that nurses such as Florence Nightingale and Helen Fairchild emerged.

The nursing profession has changed greatly within the past century. Men and women are attracted to this profession and its various specialties. Additionally, nurses now are regulated. In almost all countries, nursing practice is defined and governed by law, and entrance to the profession is regulated at national or state level. The nursing student can find a number of educational paths to becoming a professional, but these paths vary worldwide. They all, however, involve extensive study in nursing theory and hands-on practice in clinical skills.

Nurses can experience one of the most challenging and diversified working conditions of any occupation. While some nurses enjoy the day-to-day environment of a doctor’s office, their work hours can be unpredictable. Some nurses work in shifts, others may answer to 24-hour calls. Sometimes, holidays and weekends are sacrificed to help patients in a wide variety of settings. Some nurses prefer to work in hospitals and others prefer the challenges of becoming traveling nurses. In all cases, nurses often are exposed to hazards daily.

During outbreaks or epidemics, nurses often are among those who are most vulnerable, as they constantly are exposed to infected patients. Additionally, nurses who choose to work during wartime are exposed to physical injury, as military nurses today are trained for the military first and for nursing second. Even seemingly ordinary hospital situations pose a risk, as the nurse can be exposed to electrical equipment, radiation, surgical equipment, needles and harmful chemicals. Nurses also are exposed to heartbreaking situations that can take a toll both emotionally and spiritually, especially in situations where nurses are exposed to chronically or terminally ill patients. Individuals who choose the nursing profession, fortunately, can take advantage of many support groups that help nurses through challenging times.

Despite these hazards, a nursing career can be positively challenging and rewarding. The fact that nursing shortages are felt worldwide means that benefits such as recruitment bonuses, relocation and housing packages and insurance benefits can rival any other occupation in the world. When a nurse becomes a specialist in a given nursing field, the opportunities for advancement and a larger salary are comparable to any other profession. Salaries for nurses always depend upon the amount of education, work experience, the location of the health care facility and the nursing specialty. Nursing students can benefit financially from keeping an eye on changing trends in nursing.

So, while the medical profession may be shrouded by myths, misconceptions and mystery, the nursing student and professional nurse can help to define their roles in this field and in society. Nursing includes health promotion, prevention of illness and the care of ill, disabled and dying people. Nurses advocate safe environments, research and participation in shaping health policies and in patient and health systems management. Above all, education is key — both to the nurse as a lifetime student of health and wellness, and to the patient who looks to the nurse as a partner in a healthy lifestyle.