Your Paediatric Nurse is a He

26 October 2018

NUS Nursing alumnus Luther Yiew’s job in paediatrics makes him a rarity among male nurses. When he assumed a nursing position in the paediatric ward of KK Women’s and Children’s Hospital last year, he made a move unheard of in the Hospital. The lone male nurse in the paediatric ward talks about what it means to blaze a trail for males in paediatric nursing.

If you meet Luther Yiew around Ward 65 of KK Women’s and Children’s Hospital (KKH), do not call him “Doctor”. Neither is he the father of a sick child.

He is a nurse – the first male nurse in the Hospital’s paediatric ward. He is also one of only 10 male nurses in the Hospital.

Like the female nurses in this paediatric high dependency ward, he cares for children who have had complex surgeries or a range of respiratory and neurological diseases.

“In our unit, we are responsible for providing continuing care of these patients on a 24-hour basis. We monitor their vital signs, ensure they are breathing well, and watch for any complications or changes in their condition, such as vomiting, pain or decreased urine output. As most of them are on supportive devices such as ventilators, we also perform clinical procedures such as administering inhalers and suctioning when necessary,” says Luther.

The senior staff nurse who specialises in looking after children requiring high dependency care also ensures his patients receive the right kind of care, and their parents are involved in the care decision-making process.

Unequal playing field

A love for caring for and building relationships with children led Luther to accept a KKH sponsorship to specialise in paediatric nursing, after his first brush with the discipline as a second-year student on clinical attachment at the Hospital.

But the decision to pursue paediatric nursing was not made without reservation.

Besides having to challenge lingering stereotyping of nurses as being female, male paediatric nurses may also face gender acceptance issues in general paediatric wards.

“Paediatric nursing is a specialty traditionally offered to female nurses, as parents may have concerns over a male nurse nursing their children. Job placements for male paediatric nurses were also limited to highly specialised areas such as the operating theatre, children’s emergency and intensive care units,” explains Luther.

It thus took him “a lot of courage” to step out of his comfort zone, defy social norms and enter a field where male nurses form such a small minority.

Fortunately, his doubts about paediatric nursing were assuaged by the Hospital’s nursing administration, who assured him there are pioneering opportunities for male nurses. He also credits his former tutor Associate Professor Edward Poon, who is now Director of Nursing at St Luke’s Eldercare, with influencing his decision to pursue nursing as a career.

“I am inspired by his leadership and pioneering work in advancing palliative care nursing in Singapore. He has shown me that with the right attitude and vision, men in nursing can thrive and pursue their passions and interests, regardless of gender,” he adds.

Eroding the stereotype

While there are fewer men in paediatrics than in other nursing disciplines, things are slowly changing, Luther says.

“Progressively, newer generations of parents in Singapore have become more receptive to male nurses caring for their children. This has allowed male nurses like me to pursue our passions and interests in paediatric nursing,” he observes.

Heralding this change, Luther was transferred from the Children’s Emergency to the paediatric high dependency ward in 2017 when his supervisors recognised his goal to be an advanced practice nurse, which would require him to gain more clinical exposure in paediatrics.

“Like most male nurses, I loved the fast-paced environment of the Children’s Emergency where I started my career. After four years spent honing my resuscitation and triaging skills, I decided to request for a rotation to the paediatric wards to gain insight into the management of sick children beyond the brief care we give at the Children’s Emergency,” he says.

As it was unchartered waters for a male nurse to work in a paediatric ward, his managers had to advocate for him, and his application had to be considered and approved by the Hospital’s nursing leadership. His successful transfer, he says, is a sign that hospitals are progressive in providing opportunities for male paediatric nurses to work in the neonatal and paediatric wards.

But more needs to be done. Luther believes that with more men interested in pursuing nursing as a profession, paediatric hospitals like KKH and NUH should actively encourage existing and prospective male nursing students to consider taking up their nursing scholarships.

From 2007 to 2017, the number of men in nursing rose from 1,688 to 4,732. The proportion of males in nursing has also increased from 8% to 11%. At NUS Nursing, 60 male students enrolled this academic year, up from 20 three years ago.

“It is important that this increasing minority of male nurses be provided with ample and equal employment opportunities,” he says.

He adds that several male nursing students have approached him to express their interest in paediatrics as they too have had good experiences during their paediatric ward posting. “I hope that as their nursing senior, I can act as their role model.”

Same difference

Although he works in a ward dominated by women, instead of finding himself out of place, it was the female nurses who noticed it more, recalls Luther.

“Fellow nurses are mildly surprised when they see that I work in the ward, while the ward nurses I work with took several months to get used to my presence as they had never worked with a fellow male nursing colleague,” he says, adding that they have since come to recognise his advantage in handling male and heavier patients.

Being the only male nurse in the paediatric ward, he is also routinely mistaken for a doctor. “I have gotten used to convincing colleagues over the phone that I am the nurse-in-charge and not a doctor,” he quips.

His young patients also often ask him why their nurse is a boy, since children’s cartoons and storybooks still portray men in hospital as doctors and women as nurses – but they respond to him well.

“The novelty seems to make them intrigued about me and allows me to break the ice and become their friend.

“Male nurses are also better able to advocate for adolescent boys who feel otherwise shy around my female colleagues. This allows us to better care for their psychosocial needs,” he adds.

Besides the occasional need to ask his female colleagues for help to take care of his female patients’ hygiene requirements, he rarely has to proceed differently in the ward as 95% of his daily work does not require a female chaperone. “Ward nursing is very much team-based and we regularly help one another proactively. I have never felt inadequate in nursing just because I am a man,” Luther says.

The move to the paediatric ward has been a highly fulfilling one, especially when he sees patients getting better over time and sends them home happy.

“I am constantly amazed by how resilient children are. Very sick children can quickly transform from resting the whole day to being able to play, eat and smile.”

He also enjoys the holistic nursing practice as he is not just caring for sick children but looking after the whole family.

Luther’s experience shows that the essential quality of nursing – the call to nurture – is not exclusive to women at all.