When Mike Meyer tells new acquaintances that he works in delivery, they usually assume his job has something to do with shipping and receiving.
As a male nurse working in labor and delivery at California Hospital Medical Center in downtown Los Angeles, Meyer has image problems of his own--they're just not the same ones that plague the 97% of nurses who happen to be women.
Up until 10 years ago, male nursing students were routinely exempted from rotation on the labor and delivery ward; and even today, Meyer said, he's been able to find only about 25 other men nationwide who work exclusively with women giving birth.
The son of a nurse mother and a pediatrician father who later became a psychiatrist, Meyer, 25, said he originally went into nursing in order to fulfill his dream of ministering to the health needs of people in Third World countries.
"I decided if I was going to be working in the jungles of Latin America, I'd better learn how to deliver a baby," said Meyer of his choice to specialize in labor and delivery. "Also, the challenge of being the only male nurse in a traditional female role kind of appealed to me. I figured as long as I was going to be a minority (a male nurse), I might as well be a minority within a minority."
Meyer was approved to intern on the ward with the understanding that he would work under the supervision of a female nurse at all times. He said he had been doing the job for a year as a student when physicians began to protest that he should not be hired to work in the unit on a permanent basis. The dispute went all the way to the board of trustees of the hospital where Myrna Warnick, vice president for patient care services, spoke up for the nurses' right to hire whomever they pleased.
"I want a nurse accepted simply because he's a professional," said Warnick, an RN, "not on the basis of sex."
The roles in labor-delivery are neatly polarized. Women are the patients, and it's women who hover over them during their labor. So when a man--the doctor--appears on the scene, he commands power just by his uniqueness, Meyer said. Those doctors who object to his presence are simply trying to perpetuate this imbalance, he said.
"Some of the doctors here are still pretty open about the fact that they would rather have me elsewhere," Meyer said. "One doctor said he was going to tell his patients to sue me for invasion of privacy."
In his 2 1/2 years of working on the unit, Meyer said he's often encountered surprise from patients and their families, "but I have yet to find one who reacted negatively."
Once in a While, Tension
Once in a while when the solidly built, bearded nurse first draws back the sheet to check a patient's abdomen, the woman will tense. Meyer said he asks at that point: "Are you uncomfortable having me here? Would you rather have a woman nurse?"
Invariably the patient says that she does not object, Meyer reported. And by the time she gets to the delivery room, the same woman who flinched is just as likely to be asking for Meyer by name: "Mike, I'm scared. Where are you?"
Cal State Northridge student Paulette Arispe was rushed to California Hospital on a recent morning when her amniotic sac broke five weeks before her due date.
Thought He Was an Orderly
When Mike Meyer strolled into the hospital room and gave her a gown to slip on, Arispe said she first thought he was an orderly. Then she found out that Meyer was going to be the nurse seeing her through the procedure. Responding to a doctor's order, Meyer began an IV solution of magnesium sulfate in an attempt to stall labor. The baby could not wait, however, and Arispe, 24, delivered a healthy girl two days after she got to the hospital.
Arispe said Meyer was a comfort to her: "He (Meyer) is a really pleasant guy. And he's empathetic. In a way I wonder if a man has more empathy in this role than a woman would."
Arispe explained that women friends had told her that female delivery nurses sometimes assume that all labors are like the one they experienced, and if they survived it, so could their patients. She said that Meyer, having never been through the ordeal, was not so quick to say: "It's no worse than a case of the cramps, honey."
Meyer's sometimes rocky experiences as a male nurse have caused him to become outspoken about the plight of men in nursing, an aspect of the profession that he says the national nursing organizations tend to overlook, so involved are they with the problems inherent in a "women's profession."
Contrary to the claims of some female nursing activists who say the few men who enter the profession are shown favoritism, Meyer claims that male nurses have trouble advancing in their careers. Women nurses in power positions sometimes have the memory of being slighted by men in medicine and administration, and so they may be quicker to promote women, he said.
Despite being misunderstood by those within and outside the ranks, Meyer relishes his job. He said he has kept a diary of his days on the labor and delivery unit, an account that is "sometimes very funny, sometimes tragic, and always fascinating."