Nurses hold a rather special place in popular imagination. Nurses are likely to spend more time with the patients than doctors themselves and words like ‘compassion’, ‘empathy’, ‘caring’ and ‘kindness’ are commonly associated with them.

The popular medium of film has had a hand in portraying nurses as mostly females in white uniforms, quietly standing by the doctor and ready to comfort a troubled patient – most of the time. Who can forget Nurse Ratched in One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest? She is neither comforting nor helpful to the patients, instead she is the villain of the piece. Also, we can bet on Hollywood to present the nurse in a sexualized manner as well (Kill Bill, M*A*S*H), leading to a staple in fancy dress costume, the ‘sexy’ nurse. Regardless of such less than positive depictions of nurses by Hollywood, there are more good nurses than bad ones in films, mostly a foil to aloof doctors. Here we have five memorable nurses from film:


The life of Vivian Bearing, an efficient English literature professor, is turned upside down when she is diagnosed with metastatic Stage IV ovarian cancer. The film spends much of the time juxtaposing her current plight with her successful past, where the intellect is prized more than emotions. Vivian’s side effects from the aggressive treatment she undergoes are unflinchingly displayed: she vomits, loses her hair, and is under excruciating pain. The doctor and his protégés (one of her former students) treat her like a difficult problem to be solved and the sole individual who shows any compassion happens to be Nurse Monahan. In one revealing scene, Vivian is left alone on the operating table with her feet on stirrups - the doctor (her former student) leaves her abruptly - only for Nurse Monahan to question the young MD’s careless action. Throughout the film, we see instances of Nurse Monahan’s empathy, her sensitivity to the patient’s plight and her unending supply of goodwill towards them.


When handling a seemingly straightforward medical malpractice suit involving a comatose female patient, Frank Galvin, an alcoholic lawyer, convinces her relatives to take the case to court instead of settling. Rejecting the $210,000 offered by the hospital, Galvin gets into a series of troubles involving espionage, missing expert witnesses, and doubts about his competency. It seems like the entire hospital staff and their expensive legal team are out to get him, constantly denying there was any negligence on their part. It takes the bravery of a former nurse to save the day. Kaitlin Costello lives in hiding, spending her day teaching, but she was the patient’s nurse, and privy to the truth. Sensing that Costello’s moral compass was rather more accurate than their own, the hospital fired her. Her final revelations in court surrounding the medical errors committed and the way in which the others forced her to cover up the evidence proves to be exactly what was necessary to uphold justice.


In this critically acclaimed love story, the sweetest and gentlest character happens to be Hana, a French Canadian nurse working in Italy during the Second World War. Although not the protagonist, Hana is the quintessential war time nurse, soothing her stricken patient with her kind voice and ministrations, ready to listen to the badly burnt man seemingly battling amnesia and a broken heart. She is brave and humane too, staying behind alone to look after a patient considered a ‘hopeless case’ while the rest of the crew depart. Her humanity lies in her empathy and compassion as she listens to the tragic love story related by the patient, and acquiescing to his final wish to be euthanized instead of enduring a slow and painful death.


Regardless of what you might think of this film, it tackles the prejudice still experienced by male nurses. Greg Focker is a well-meaning nurse who meets his girlfriend’s parents for the first time. Unfortunately for him, Jack, his future father-in-law, thinks male nurses are a joke, and for the rest of the film, he airs his distaste for men who choose this calling. Greg is suspected of drug addiction due to his profession, and when he isn’t as excellent in sports as the other men, Jack finds yet another reason to disparage the former’s profession. Of course, nothing works out well for Greg, until the end where the patriarch’s own emotional immaturity is brought to the forefront, creating a satisfactory conclusion – well, sort of. The film’s main contribution to popular culture is creating a protagonist, comical and sometimes rather at fault himself for trying to diffuse situations ineffectively, who, in the end, is comfortable with his own masculinity and his choice of profession as a nurse, regardless of misinformed ideas about gender and professions held by others.


Here we have another male nurse, this time one tasked with sorting out a father-son relationship, played to perfection by the late Philip Seymour Hoffman. Phil Pharma is a hospice nurse who cares for the terminally ill Earl Partridge, a television show producer. All the characters in the film are running away from their pasts, regretting their actions, and angry with someone else – except for Phil. His actions throughout the film show someone devoted to his patient, making the final moments of Earl’s life as comfortable as possible, listening to his impromptu confessions, and going beyond professionalism to bring together a broken family. Indeed, even when the others treat Phil with anger or self-righteousness, he hardly wavers in fulfilling an old man’s dying wish. MIMS


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