I remember the exact moment it struck me. I was lying on a couch bed in Connecticut Children’s Hospital next to my teenage daughter who had pancreatitis, a painful, but treatable inflammation of the pancreas. The intravenous machine steadily dripped pain medication and fluids into her veins. A medical helicopter hovered over Hartford Hospital across the street, where a trauma team was waiting on the roof to save another life. The nicest nurses came into her room to check her blood pressure and temperature and made her feel better just by talking to her. And I remember thinking, Jesus, I’m in the wrong goddamn field.
You see, I had been a journalist at The Hartford Courant for twenty-four years, a police reporter to be exact, and no one loved the job more. I loved going in police cruisers at warp speed. I was fearless, interviewing junkies and drug dealers in bad neighborhoods, responding to whatever the Courant needed me to respond to. I was bitten by a police dog, had smoke inhalation. I was yelled at and threatened by cops. I was doing it in the name of public service.
It all seemed worthwhile, a job that I had wanted to do since I was nine years old. I always felt I was one of the lines in the sand between good cops and bad cops, between corruption and justice. I was part of a large Pulitzer team for breaking news; I was interviewed by Dan Rather for a story on heroin. I was good at what I did and loved my job. I never wanted to do anything else.
Then Sam Zell bought the newspaper, which had already been partially crippled by Tribune’s financial mismanagement. We were told the sale would help us, that we would own the company.
Very quickly, the disgusting e-mails began to emanate from Zell, not about journalism, but about profit. Not about public service, but about the almighty dollar. Equally disturbing were the clueless e-mails from some guy named Lee, who purported to know something about journalism, but obviously had never picked up any newspaper other than a tabloid. Then layoffs, and buyouts. And suddenly, I felt dirty, like all the cops who always yelled at me that I was just trying to get the page-one story to sell another newspaper were right all along.
Adding to that stress, between late 2007 and 2008, my daughter was hospitalized, I had surgery for a (thankfully benign) mass in my breast, and my mother had cancer. During these hospitalizations, I watched compassionate nurses and doctors perform their tasks with care and empathy. Sure they make money, but I bet they don’t get letters from the president of the hospital urging them to make more of a profit.
And somewhere between my daughter’s hospitalization, my own surgery, and seeing my mother treated successfully at St. Francis Hospital and Medical Center in Hartford, I decided to leave what I had thought would be a lifelong career in journalism.
I decided to become a nurse.
The decision did not come easily. I spent many nights lying awake in bed, thinking about it. I cried all the time, even one day in the break room because I could not believe I would no longer make cop checks, listen to a police scanner, run when breaking news happened—things I had done professionally since I was seventeen. But quite frankly, I dislike this new journalism, how newspapers have tried to reinvent themselves and instead have become more and more like television. I fought taking a digital camera and shooting a fire, like some nosy neighbor.
I thought I would have more time to think about it, take some night and weekend courses toward nursing. I didn’t think another buyout offer would come so soon. Then, in late June, the Courant offered a lucrative buyout, the second one since March.
On June 30, the night before I had to make a decision, I was driving my daughter home from work and stressing out over whether to leave the job now and go back to school or slowly take courses toward a nursing degree and stay with the Courant. I remember saying to my daughter that I needed some kind of a push, a sign that this was the right thing to do. We stopped to get gas at a small station not far from home. I was the only one pumping gas when a car pulled in front of mine, and a guy got out. He was in bright blue scrubs and had Crocs on his feet. As he pumped gas, I asked him, “Are you a nurse?”
He said he was, that he worked at St. Francis, on the same ICU step-down floor where my mother had gone after her surgery. What were the chances? The hospital was thirty miles from that gas station. Even more strangely, he had gone to the same nursing school where I was planning to enroll, where I was already taking a summer math class, a prerequisite for nursing. He told me that he loved his job, that he had been in the military and didn’t even have a four-year college degree, and that he made it through nursing school. He told me I could do it.
My daughter said it was a sign. I don’t know if it was or not, but the very next day I enrolled in the school full time in prerequisite math and science classes. And I signed the buyout papers at the Courant. July 30 was my last day, an appropriate end for a journalist who remembers what “30” meant.
I hope to become a nurse, and a good one. I hope to make a difference one person at a time. Maybe one day write about why I wanted to be a nurse. In the meantime, I hope to continue to freelance for newspapers and magazines while I am in school, and even when I am a nurse. I will always be a writer. But I never want to feel like I am doing it to line the pockets of rich men in Chicago who know nothing about journalism and even less about public service.
The steady drip of layoffs and buyouts, slowly desiccating once-vibrant newsrooms around the country, has also produced a reservoir of anger, sadness, fear, uncertainty—even some cautious optimism here and there—among reporters and editors who invested years, decades in some cases, of their lives to print journalism. We’ve asked anyone so inclined to channel these emotions, not into rant—although there will be a bit of that—but rather into reflection on what went wrong, and where we might go from here. We will publish one per day, under the headline “Parting Thoughts.” All of the letters we publish will be collected here.