Society doesn't much care for male nurses

By Peng Yining (China Daily)
Updated: 2010-05-10 08:04
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Traditional breadwinners get neither high salary nor status.

Li Zunzhu saw another male colleague quit last month. The resignation was not the first he has seen during his nine-year career as a nurse at Peking Union Medical College Hospital's intensive care unit (ICU) - and it is unlikely to be the last.

His colleague decided to leave the job shortly after his girlfriend of eight years called off their wedding because her family refused to let her marry a male nurse.

"The girl's parents thought it was disgrace for a man to do nursing work that is menial and pays badly. My colleague was depressed and quit soon after the break-up," said Li, 31, who is now one of only three men still working in the 60-nurse ICU department.

Society doesn't much care for male nurses

As the nation prepares to celebrate International Nurses Day on Wednesday, health industry experts and those working in the profession said that little has changed in attitudes toward the country's male nurses, many of whom still experience severe discrimination.

"The discrimination comes from people's prejudices about the profession," said Ying Lan, deputy director of the Beijing Nursing Association. "People generally think nursing is a degrading job that requires no technical skills and offers a low salary. Women are considered more adept at doing this kind of work; people can't accept a man toweling a patient's body or cleaning up after them."

When Li was enrolled in Peking Union Medical College's school of nursing in 1998, he was one of only two men from 400 students. "I was surrounded by women. I felt like a boy who'd accidentally been sent to an all-girls school," he joked.

Society doesn't much care for male nurses

He recalled that when the class was divided into groups to practice injecting needles into each other's arms, none of his female classmates were willing to partner up with him. "I had to practice with the only other guy in the class," said the lean, 1.8-meter-tall man, who hails from Shandong province. "Maybe the girls thought us men were too clumsy and would hurt them."

The two men quickly became the most popular test subjects ahead of the final injection examination as the girls realized male veins are thicker and therefore easier to find with a needle.

The real pain, however, did not begin until after Li graduated in 2001 and started his job as the first male nurse to ever work in the ICU at Peking Union Medical College Hospital, one of China's most renowned hospitals.

People were always surprised that there were men working as nurses and some female patients refused to allow him to perform any gynecological check ups, he said.

For almost a decade, Li, whose wife is also a former nurse, has regularly worked more than 13 hours a day giving injections and taking blood samples, fitting catheters, and helping patients to wash and use the toilet, among many other things.

No matter how hard a nurse works, though, they will never receive the same respect as a doctor, he said. "People despise nurses because they believe the work is of a low status. It's even more shameful (in their eyes) when a man does this job," he said.

During his first couple of years in the job, Li said he used to dodge the question when patients asked him if he was a doctor (male nurses do not wear caps like their female colleagues to distinguish them from the doctors). "Maybe I'm too sensitive but I could see the pity in their eyes when I told them I am not a doctor but a nurse."

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Nursing is far more complex than simply giving jabs and dispensing medicine, said Ying, who was a male nurse in the 1970s.

Not only do they need to report every detail of a patient's condition to the doctor so they can draw up a comprehensive treatment plan, they are also vital in the recovery process as they need to make sure a patient is developing both physically and mentally.

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