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Consumer Reports

Are you man enough ... to be a nurse? | (KRT) HACKENSACK, N.J. — Shoulder to shoulder they stand, nine tough customers starring in a black-and-white ad.

One is a Harley rider, another a Navy Seal. A snowboarder is on one end, a basketball forward on the other.

"Are you man enough ... to be a nurse?" the text asks.

The poster - for which the Oregon Center for Nursing, which created the ad, found licensed nurses with rough-and-gruff hobbies or backgrounds - was borne of the nationwide nursing shortage.

Staffing levels are 20 percent below the ideal, according to government labor reports. Experts say 126,000 nursing jobs could be filled right now - if only there were enough qualified candidates.

For anyone who asks, "Why go after men?" there is only one answer: "Why not?"

"Nurses are compensated well now," said 26-year-old Jason Turi of Haledon, N.J., a former teacher who is studying for a baccalaureate in nursing at William Paterson University in Wayne, N.J. "There's so many different roles - you'd be amazed."

Danny Verina, 33, of West Milford, N.J., joined the same program after spending six years in the fitness industry.

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"I found there were a lot more career opportunities in nursing," Verina said. "You're able to change departments. You can go from labor-and-delivery to clinical care to emergency room to gerontology."

That men could bolster the nursing ranks is no new idea. The first known nursing school, opened about 250 B.C. in India, admitted only men. During the Crusades, monks and knights tended wounded soldiers.

During the U.S. Civil War, the recuperating sick or injured cared for new arrivals from the battlegrounds. By the late 19th century, however, the face of the profession started to change, as social attitudes steered women toward "nurturing" work such as teaching and healing.

Today just 5.4 percent of the country's nurses are men, according to a survey released in February 2002 by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

In New Jersey, about 3 percent are men, according to the New Jersey Collaborating Center for Nursing, an organization created by the state last year to bolster the ranks - and quality - of nurses.

It's well-known that men in this field are the targets of mean-spirited stereotypes - being effeminate, underachieving and worse. A recent film aside - remember Robert De Niro berating Ben Stiller for his choice of career in "Meet the Parents"? - the cruelty is dissipating, nurses say.

Jerry Lucas, publisher of the fledgling Male Nurse Magazine, remembers the stigma in his early days of nursing school.

"If you're a man and a nurse, you're either a med-school dropout or gay," Lucas recalled. "People just have a perception that we are doing what we shouldn't be doing."

An Army veteran and the married father of four girls, Lucas is a night-shift supervisor for the Medical Center of Southern Indiana.

"I took a good look at the fact that I had been a nurse for 16 years, and there were no professional magazines showing what males were doing," he says. "I pitched the idea of a magazine to the big publishers and they said it would never work. No one would ever buy it. I said OK, fine. I'll do it myself."

Male Nurse is set to make its debut this month.

"We're going to run off 50,000 (copies)," he says. "I already have 6,000 subscriptions, and no one's even seen the magazine yet."

Thanks in part to recruitment efforts like the "Are you man enough ... ?" poster, the audience for such a magazine is growing. In effect, the industry is beckoning to an overlooked pool of job candidates and saying: We need you, yes, but more important, we want you.

"If you look at the roots of this profession, we really evolved out of that `40s model of being a doctor's helper," says Deborah Burton, executive director of the Oregon Center for Nursing. "Men were treated terribly or made to feel there's something wrong with them. It hasn't been until the last 15 years or so that we've talked about it being a problem. We're changing a very sick and inaccurate image as we go after men."

Johnson & Johnson, the New Brunswick, N.J.-based health care products company, started addressing the nursing shortage in March 2002 with a $20 million print and video advertising campaign that prominently featured men in the profession. Of 70 or so nurses profiled on its Web site, about a third are males.

At Hackensack University Medical Center, recruiters this fall are planning a campaign all their own: pitching to all-male high schools in North Jersey.

"More and more hospitals are trying to get men into the mix of things," said Patricia Brady, a nursing recruiter for the hospital. "It brings a different perspective. It adds a nice dynamic to the unit."

Brady said recruiters press upon all prospective employees, male and female, the personal reward of caring for the sick, but also the good pay and benefits and the advantage of gaining new skills. These are crucial selling points in a job market still smarting from the failure of so many Internet-based businesses.

Nationally, the median base pay for registered nurses is $41,642, according to a survey by Allied Physicians. In New Jersey, the numbers are even better: Starting pay for RNs is in the low- to mid-$50,000 range, according to the nursing center at Rutgers. Tack on advanced degrees, and pay can nearly double.

"You don't have to work a Monday-to-Friday day-hour shift," Brady says. "As your career evolves, you may start as a staff nurse. Ten to 15 years from now, you may want to go into another kind of nursing. We're really facing a shortage. It's one of the fields where you don't have to worry about finding a job."

Brady said Hackensack's male nurse statistics are in line with the rest of the country's. But she pointed out that men are well represented at nursing stations throughout the hospital: administration, education, the operating room, emergency trauma department and medical and surgical floors, to name a few.

In the William Paterson program, many of the newest male nursing students sampled other careers before deciding to enroll in nursing courses, according to Julie Bliss, chairwoman of the nursing department.

One, 25-year-old James Soltis of Clifton, N.J., studied business administration at Bergen Community College before finding an administrative job at Chilton Memorial Hospital. There, he became interested in medicine and started considering a career as a cardiovascular technician or doctor.

His fiancee, who in May finished the nursing program at William Paterson, suggested Soltis might want to follow her lead. So far, he says, he's heard no nasty comments from friends and family.

"Some guys would say it's a great way to meet girls," he says with a laugh. "The one thing that the guys have as an advantage over the girls - you're not looked at as a nurse by the doctors. The doctors kind of talk to you on a one-on-one level, from what I've seen in the hospital. They're more open-minded listening to a male perspective."

Turi, who was a middle school teacher in Paterson, N.J., for three years, says he's surprised by his level of interest in his new studies, even as he admits to the emotional and financial strain of returning to school.

"I was about to be tenured. When you get tenure, that's pretty much it - you get very comfortable and locked in," he says. "Before I got locked in, I got out. I have friends who are teachers asking, `What are the prerequisites? I'm interested.' "

Verina, the veteran of the fitness industry, suggested that nursing today is a better career for everyone - male and female - than it was in the past.

"The nursing industry itself - you're not wearing the hats and skirts anymore," says Verina, referring to the white uniforms of years ago. "We're not here as a nursemaid. The nurse has to think now. It's not a `command' mode. You see that patient for 12 hours. The doctor sees the patient for five minutes. You know what that patient needs just by a grunt. You're on top of it."

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© 2003, The Record Distributed by Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services