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The Stoic Nurse: Insights from Kathryn Bucher

This month we had the pleasure of hearing from Kathryn Bucher, a nursing professor and board member of The College of Stoic Philosophers. Kathryn shares her experiences with nursing, Stoicism, and her new course, The Stoic Nurse: Philosophy at the Bedside.

Many years ago, as a Peace Corps Volunteer in Honduras, I taught nursing school to young people with an 8th-grade education. They were expected to be the backbone of health care in this impoverished country, and as such, they needed to know everything from delivering babies to tuberculosis prevention. But what these young nurses taught me, a naive, arrogant ICU nurse from California, was just what it was to love nursing.

They approached their every day with optimism, determination, kindness, and practical realism, facing terrible health conditions while honoring their patients fiercely. In my 40-year career as a nurse, I have never stopped admiring those Honduran nurses for the way they could lift the human spirit and body with so few tools. This experience in the bush set the stage for my own journey into Stoicism decades later; the memory of their bold realism and good humor amidst pretty tough conditions continues to inspire me. They taught me more than I ever taught them.

Since my 2021 retirement from the Veterans Healthcare System as a Chief Nursing Officer, I continue to meditate about nursing. The pandemic was brutal for nurses everywhere; 30% have left their specialty or profession or have taken less risky positions away from the bedside. We face an enormous nursing shortage right now.

I believe many nurses have lost their ‘true north,' their resilience, and their faith in their professional purpose, as they have witnessed more death and emotional pain than at any time in their careers. Even as an executive, I could work hard to divert, but could not control the tsunami of forces battering my staff. Our nursing workforce needs to recover from the deep shock of the last few years and find answers for what happened to their calling.

Stoicism can help with the convalescence. Stoic philosophy has a unique worldview, a powerful set of principles, and methods for living free from internal emotional conflict. It helps us rethink how to live as rational beings rather than passive creatures buffeted by external forces. To this end, I delivered several courses about Stoic philosophy to hospital and academic nurses, both in person and online, over the last few years.

But what I am most excited about is a new course sponsored by the College of Stoic Philosophy called “The Stoic Nurse: Philosophy at the Bedside”, an eight-week mentored online program that will launch on April 1. Nurses of all stripes (e.g., RN. LVN, CNA), can cohort together to share their first Stoic learning experiences. The Stoic Nurse offers both an introduction to Stoic Philosophy, examples of everyday nursing experiences from a Stoic perspective, and a roadmap to resilience in the face of tough times.

How does one grapple with an overwhelmed emergency room and an impossible workload? What are ways to manage disappointment when overlooked for a charge nurse job? How does Stoicism help us face another dying patient? How does a nurse find eudaimonia (joy, flowing excellence, courage, justice, self-mastery, wisdom) in their often complicated exhausting day?

Common nursing case study questions are interwoven through the course and addressed through Stoicism topics such as Stoicism 101 (brief history and overview), the dichotomy of control and amor fati, eudaimonia and virtue, following nature, emotions and reasoning, social responsibility, Stoic practices, and Stoic resilience. Using common patient care scenarios to test out Stoic ideas has proven to be of tremendous value to students.

And while The Stoic Nurse: Philosophy at the Bedside emphasizes personal and professional equanimity, it also underscores the unique crossover of nurses as stewards of oikeiosis, that Greek term that means home, accommodation, or affiliation. Nurses by their nature work to create familiarity through trust, care, and comfort for others. Stoics also know that this is an essential part of what it means to be human: to care for others and embrace social responsibilities as essential for survival, self-development, and well-being. Nurses are reminded about how honorably they role-model the gifts and wisdom of human connection

It is a natural fit, really. Nurses work from a professional code of ethics. They have a theoretical model based on caring and a deep awareness of the human response to illness. They have their own knowledge base, built from the medical, nursing, social, physiological, and psychological sciences. And they are consummate observers and advocates, always reflecting on what is happening with their patients. They already blend reason, knowledge, intuition, compassion, and ethics to respond to patient situations with wisdom and the right actions.

Stoicism, however, adds additional support, through its philosophical and ancient anchoring. Nurses who have taken Stoic training so far have spoken effusively about their own personal inspiration and the immediate application of many principles into their nursing practice. That’s the goal! And that’s my own work. Aligning Stoic philosophy into nursing practice seems like a tremendous win for patients, nurses, and people everywhere.

Kathryn Bucher is a retired Chief Nursing Officer and Healthcare System executive who served the U.S. Veterans Health Administration for over 30 years in New Mexico, Arizona, and California. She is now a Fellow with the College of Stoic Philosophers as a faculty and Board member, focused on a traditional approach to Stoic study. In addition, Kathryn introduces Stoic principles to hospitals and university nursing groups, as well as mentors nurse leaders, through her own teaching and consulting business, Bucher Nursing Transformations.

Home is now in beautiful Duvall, Washington, US (outside of Seattle) with her husband and youngest daughter. Her days are filled with keto, too much coffee, walks, student Zooms, friends, political action, mystery novels, and flying to Los Angeles to hug her brilliant grandchildren. But staying on the path of the Stoic prokopton, making progress every day towards being her best, virtuous self, is her ‘true north’ and inspiration.


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