I’m a Male Nurse – So What?


Brett Adamson became a nurse because he wanted to help people, but he quickly discovered that as a man, you’re never just a nurse, you’re always a “male nurse.”

For Brett Adamson, becoming a nurse was a gateway into helping the world’s most disadvantaged people. In 2005 Brett began working for the medical humanitarian aid organisation, Médecins Sans Frontières. That year was part of an emergency nutrition project in Ethiopia where he spent six months treating kids with severe malnutrition. What followed was a growing sense of responsibility that led him to Afghanistan, where he spent six months treating trauma patients, and more recently to South Sudan working as an emergency nurse in a refugee camp.

Yet despite having helped countless people around the world, Brett still has to defend his decision to work as a nurse in what has traditionally been a female dominated role. Here Brett tells his story hoping to break down the stereotypes associated with the male nurse.

I became a nurse because ultimately I was interested in people. It was a way for me to explore humanity through caring for people.

I had left high school quite early on and had been working for a few years as a furniture maker. But by my early 20s I had a growing sense of responsibility and decided to go into nursing.

Historically the first nurses were male, but that was a very long time ago. Now it’s very much a gender defined role, one that has historically been dominated by women. And the work force certainly reflects that. You are never a nurse; you are the ‘male’ nurse.

We often joke about it in the workforce and it’s definitely a stereotype that is beginning to be broken down. Some specialties like critical care tend to attract more males and in a major city the Intensive Care Unit (ICU) can be an all male staff.

The whole acceptance of the male nurse is culturally based as well.  In some cultures relatives of patients I have treated find it incredibly hilarious that you’re a male and you’re not an engineer or a doctor. And in other countries it’s far more accepted for males to be nurses.

My friends were very surprised when I told them I was going to become a nurse. And I still find that I almost have to put up a level of defense when someone asks me what I do. If I say I’m a male nurse I almost get ready to say “and so what?” It’s actually easier to say I work for Médecins Sans Frontières than to say I’m a nurse.

I do feel like I have to defend the position, or in some ways reinforce my masculinity. I have had to explain why I work as a nurse because people often think that’s not what real men do. Because real men are supposed to be engineers or builders.

Ironically nursing is actually an area that requires enormous strength far beyond the physical that is so often attributed to masculinity. In terms of personal development, growing as a person and exploring and testing your own inner strength I can’t think of anything more intense than nursing. One of the hardest things in the world to do is watching a child die. And that’s what you have to do as a nurse. Even as a doctor you can come and offer suggestions and while some doctors are in the role where they have to stay until the end, most are not. As nurses we are there the whole time, watching all the suffering, maybe without solution and maybe even disagreeing with some of the solutions that are offered. It is an incredible test of your emotional stability and your ability to experience the level of trauma that you routinely have to do as a nurse.

The role of a nurse is also enormously challenging to your ego. It’s hard to maintain your own sense of identity when your whole role is to serve people and to do the things that no one else wants to do. That is challenging for anyone to do, but those who proclaim higher levels of masculinity would find it incredibly hard.

While I knew it wouldn’t happen initially my aim was to always work internationally and to be able to assist populations in need while exploring life in all its harshness. As you grow and you have explored the world and you turn statistics into realities, and numbers into individuals, you see the reality is far worse than you could have ever imagined.

It’s definitely not an experience where you come back feeling gratified thinking I’ve done my bit and can go to drinking lattes. That sense of responsibility just deepens. I always think I could have done more. You try to remember the ones you did help, but you always remember the ones that you didn’t.


Brett has over five years experience working in the field as a nurse for Médecins Sans Frontières. He has just returned from South Sudan where he spent three months working as an emergency nurse with refugees.  His first mission was in 2008, where he spent five months in Ethiopia working on nutrition emergency.  Having recently returning home from South Sudan, Brett will now take some time out in Australia before heading off on his next field placement for Médecins Sans Frontières.


Lead Photo: Brett at work as a nurse

Originally appeared at Mamamia


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  1. Hank Vandenburgh says:

    I was a licensed practical nurse from the early 70s until I got my masters in 1982. I always worked in psych, which changed from being mainly male nursing staff in 1970 to being mainly female in the 80s and beyond. I was in an RN program in the mid 70s, but I found the instructors pretty hard to deal with, so I hopped off. Because they were medical-surgical types, and I was a psych type, there was incompatibility. I loved psych nursing, and they loved men, even when they were exiting the field. I did feel that the ADRN program I was in was biased against heterosexual men (believe it or not.) I had done six years in the Army, and the program was worse than basic training as far as I was concerned.

    I later got a PhD and became a medical sociologist and professor doing research on organizations and finance in health care. Unfortunately, nurses do eat their young sometimes…

  2. It was good to hear from another male nurse.

    One of the greatest ironies of my life was that I read books about military strategies because I was trying to wrap my mind around the Vietnam War. But I used the tactics I had learned to bring mental patients that were hurting themselves and others under control.

    Because I worked a set of the same counties I got a reputation quickly for not having a problem with bodies. In three years I took care of twenty-five people that had passed. In talking to female nurses some are amaazed because they have worked for as many as fifteen years and never even seen a body much less taken care of one.

    Your taking about children dying reminded me of caring for teenagers that are complaining about having to eat charcoal after a meal of Tylenol pills in a sucide attempt. You can’t deal with things like those and not be effected.

    You make me a little jealous because I would really like to be back in the field again. But I’m rapidly approaching 61 so I doubt I’ll be making any more memories. God speed and don’t let’em get to you’uns!

  3. Salvice says:

    Speaking from experience, my encounters with male nurses have been overwhelmingly positive. Keep at it, and know that there are people who recognize you for your talent and ability before they think about your biological sex. They know the pressures that you face, and are cheering for you silently.

    Most recently when I was getting stitches in my finger and a tetanus shot, the (male) nurse stuck around to watch over the procedure. When I told him that I didn’t want to frighten my pops with a phone call discussing my emergency room visit, he responded, “Oh, but we’re dads. We’re supposed to worry about our kids. I don’t think we really ever stop.” He will be remembered fondly.

    Having the right tools to heal the body and the right words to comfort the soul is a gift. Keep on sharing it.

  4. Why hasn’t the nursing profession changed it’s name to something with less gendered baggage? The way secretaries became “administrative professionals,” for example. We have male “admins” in my workplace and it seems a lot less strange than a “male secretary”.

  5. SidneyAnne Stine says:

    Good for you Brett! First off, if other people have those hang ups, they are exactly that – THEIR hangups! I think it is great and I also think the profession would benefit greatly from more males. Many retired cops and fireman become nurses as “second careers”. Additionallly, I think the type of work you’ve chosen to do is amazing! Caring for others and helping people is a beautiful and respected life choice – regardless of gender!

  6. Mark R. Brand says:

    Great article, man. I was a medical assistant for about seven years and I got asked the “Why didn’t you just become a doctor?” question about a jillion times. People don’t really get how team-based medicine is on an organizational level. It’s like asking your starting point guard why he didn’t just go ahead and buy himself an entire basketball team to coach. To respond to one of the other commenters above: I frequently found initial skepticism because I was a guy, but I tried to make a good impression by being at least (if not more) as gentle, friendly, and patient-focused as my female coworkers. I don’t know if that’s the classic “got to be better than your competition to be seen as equal” discrimination phenomenon in play, but it worked for me, and I rarely had any trouble maintaining my patients’ trust and respect after they met me the first time.

  7. Well I don’t know how it is in the US…but here in germany in the many hospitals I was as a patient over the years the nurses were always happy to see a male nurse.Since most of the nurses I got to know have problems with their backs in one or another way they were really glad that there was a guy that could help with the heavy lifting.Although male nurses are also kinda rare here…at least from what I got to know o.o Maybe when I get to see the parts of the hospital for the adults I’ll get to see more.I think if not for my illness I might as well work as a male nurse,since I don’t really have a problem with seeing people die.I can be very empathic but for example when I see starving children on tv or something I usually feel next to nothing.Might be different when you see something like that in reality…but I still think I got kind of a high defense against that^^So yeah…in summary more male nurses would actually be really helpful 🙂 Although what would be more helpful would be if the nurses we already have would receive better payment for their jobs.I mean for most people dealing with dying people might very well leave more or less deep emotional scars and I also read about people that needed to consult a psychologist in order to deal with them.That the 1 side of the medal…the other side is the physical stress.Like those back problems I mentioned.I can imagine that quite a lot of nurses might need treatment for those once they get too old for their job.It’d be kinda stupid if the nurses would suffer from similar fates than the old people they sometimes watch over.Sometimes because in a hospital there are of course more problems than old people^^.
    Oh and sorry if there are some mistakes in my comment…I don’t think so but if there are it’s because english is still a secondary language for me^^

  8. I find it interesting to read how it feels for a man to feel the sexist gaze of others – not through objectification -as sexism is traditionally discussed – but because he doesn’t fit the stereotype of his profession. Great piece Brett – I’m truly inspired. You so clearly summarised why nurses deserve more credit than they get – watching a child die is a heavy burden and one you can’t walk away from.

  9. Random_Stranger says:

    Thanks for sharing. Just curious, have you ever found that patients perceive you differently than they might perceive a female nurse? Do those perceptions impact your ability to do your job, for better or worse.

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