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Male nurses remain few in number

Dakota Wesleyan University nursing student Taylor Olson sits in an exam room in the Avera Queen of Peace Hospital emergency room during his shift earlier this month. Olson is one of three male registered nurses employed by the hospital. (Laura Wehde/Republic)

Taylor Olson can remember the day that he decided to become a nurse.

His high school baseball teammate had just taken a pitch to the face and had fallen to the ground, seizing and bleeding.

"A nurse happened to be in the stands, and she ran down and pretty much saved that kid's life," Olson said. "That really touched me as a young person to see how important nurses can be in everyday life."

Olson is one of three male registered nurses working for Avera Queen of Peace Health Services in Mitchell, which puts him in the distinct minority among 182 total nurses. The health system is also home to eight certified registered nurse anesthetists, five of whom are men.

A 2009 study by the Department of Health and Human Services shows there were about 2.9 million licensed, registered nurses in the United States. Approximately 168,181 -- or 5.8 percent -- of those were men.

Though men still make up a small percentage of nurses, many say the stigma of being a male nurse has all but disappeared from the occupation.

Adele Jacobsen has been in the nursing industry for 39 years. Today, as an associate professor of nursing at Dakota Wesleyan University and chair of DWU's nursing program in Huron, Jacobsen said she's seen attitudes about men in nursing change, even though the industry remains predominately female.

"I think the public sees the professionalism tied to nursing and, with that, I think you see less stigmatism put toward males that do decide that that's a career for them," Jacobsen said. "I think it's improving."

The university currently has nine men out of 143 students in its nursing programs being taught in Huron, Sioux Falls and Mitchell. That ratio doesn't change much from year to year, Jacobsen said, although there was only one man training to be a nurse in Jacobsen's graduating class in 1971.

Perhaps part of the reason for the decreased stigma is the recognition that men and women can bring different strengths to the nursing field, Jacobsen said.

When it comes to problem solving, men are often categorized as solo problem solvers, the yin to the yang of women's preference for communication and collaboration.

It's a theory that rings true to Kim Dewhurst, a male DWU nursing student from Alexandria who was initially surprised by how much of his education involves the "nursing process" -- the integration of doctors and specific therapists to create the best possible care for patients -- as opposed to simple diagnosis and treatment.

As his education has continued, Dewhurst said, he's had to adjust some of his male thought mechanisms to fit within that process.

"I want to fix the problem. That's not my job," Dewhurst said. "I'm there to integrate and make sure that this person is getting all the care they need."

Chris Lippert, who became the director of the operating room at Avera Queen of Peace after obtaining his master of business administration, started his career as a registered nurse.

Lippert said he made sure to consider how each gender processes problems while serving his patients.

"I think women will certainly sit and listen more," Lippert said. "The men are probably a little more quick to act and not stop and really brew over it."

But while keeping problem-solving instincts in check is something some male nurses have to concentrate on, there are other qualities men bring to the job that can be immediate assets.

Brady Hofer said his physical strength can be an asset at Avera Queen of Peace, where he works in the Intensive Care Unit.

"It is a total help with moving patients around the room," Hofer said. "It's nice to have a little bit stronger arms, because it takes a load off of the other nurses I work with that have back pains or that don't need to be lifting weight like that."

Olson said a male presence in the emergency room can also play a much-needed role in dealing with intoxicated or otherwise belligerent patients.

"In the ER, (patients) have a tendency to be rowdy," Olson said. "I feel that having a male presence can sometimes help calm a gentleman down."

Some nurses admit that patients are still caught off guard by male nurses, sometimes mistaking them for doctors or bringing up quotes from "Meet The Parents," a film in which the star is ridiculed for being a male nurse.

But male nurses in Mitchell say the comments are a tiny part of a job they love.

"I just enjoy helping others," Olson said.