LOS ANGELES – He was riding in his aunt’s sedan, a kid in elementary school, watching senior citizens walk in and out of the Lynwood, Calif., retirement home where his mother worked. Then she emerged in scrubs.
David Fuentes holds on tightly to that simple memory: his mother at work. It’s easier than recalling many other parts of his childhood – “a blur,” as he called it.
Like the time when he was little and his father, drunk, socked his mother. She remembers the blood gushing from her face and her child standing in the bathroom saying, “Mom, Mom.”
Or the times when he was older and his mother had fallen into addiction. He would stay awake fearful of what might come when she went out looking for a fix.
Or the times he took care of his siblings when no one else would.
“Just like the basic things. That’s all I really remember,” Fuentes said. “Kind of helping to make sure they got fed, and just keeping them company, making sure they were OK.”
His face tightens slightly with some questions about the past. But he knows he doesn’t need to remember everything.
He has his one simple memory. His mother, a nurse. She always dreamed of becoming a registered nurse, but life got in the way.
“There’s a huge family dynamic,” said Fuentes, 26. “I wanted to fulfill for my mom what she envisioned for herself, but could never do.”
This summer, he graduated from nursing school at UCLA and landed a job in the intensive care unit at UCLA Medical Center, Santa Monica.
Beyond being a trailblazer in his family, Fuentes is among a group of men redefining the nursing industry. Although the profession is still dominated by women, the number of men is on the rise.
The percentage of male registered nurses more than tripled from 2.7 percent in 1970 to 9.6 percent in 2011, and the proportion of licensed male practical and vocational nurses increased from 3.9 percent to 8.1 percent over the same period, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.
Researchers cite various reasons for the shift, including diminished legal barriers, increasing demand for nurses as the U.S. population ages, and middle-class pay.
But for Fuentes, a main motivation is the solace he finds in being a caretaker.
“Everything is left behind,” he said. “That’s why I love it so much.”
“It’s like therapy … kind of our way of dealing with our issues.”
The sturdy curve of his biceps, the gauge in his left ear, the lip ring and tongue ring might seem intimidating if it weren’t for the delicate way Fuentes presses on the legs of a 99-year-old patient to check her blood flow, or how he cups his hands and drums on her back to help her breathe more easily.
It is 45 minutes into his first shift as a registered nurse, and Fuentes and another RN are caring for the elderly woman, who had been in septic shock.
She is blind and mostly unresponsive, but Fuentes asks politely, his voice soft but direct: “I’m going to take your temperature … OK?”
Another nurse said the woman’s family stayed for 15 minutes earlier in the day. But Fuentes will be there the whole night standing guard – giving her medicine and monitoring her pain and breathing on his 12-hour overnight shift.
His black curly hair is pulled back into a ponytail and he’s wearing navy blue scrubs, the color of the uniform defining his new rank.
“This is the first day of the rest of my life,” Fuentes said before his shift started.
Fuentes said he thinks it’s only natural that some patients feel more comfortable with nurses of the same gender, but mostly, he said, it doesn’t come up.
A couple of months earlier, during his training, he was checking the oxygen flow into patient Russell Sherman’s nostrils when the 87-year-old looked him over admiringly and said he remembered when the only nurses at hospitals were women in white.
“They were always girls,” Sherman said. “It doesn’t faze me at all. I think it’s a good thing for men to be able to do a job without shame.”
One of Fuentes’ heroes is UCLA School of Nursing Dean Courtney Lyder, the nation’s first male minority dean of such an institution. Lyder, 47, said his own dean at Rush University Medical Center in Chicago, Luther Christman, was the first male dean of a school of nursing in the country. Tall and muscular, he “debunked a lot of preconceived myths about nursing.”
Decades later, Lyder said, stereotypes about men in nursing are fading, and the experience he had in nursing school – one of five men in a class of 200 – is becoming more uncommon. Although he said “we still have a long way to go” as an industry, 11 percent of students at UCLA’s nursing school during the 2012-13 academic year were men.
“Men are seeing that this is a viable option that pays well, you have a good lifestyle, you give back to society,” Lyder said, adding that nursing groups such as the American Assembly for Men in Nursing have also surged on college campuses.
“Nursing doesn’t have a gender. Society and media have portrayed nursing as feminine,” Lyder said. “It’s not.”
Fuentes said he decided to go into nursing in his freshman or sophomore year of high school, but his mother said his instinct for caretaking goes back longer than that.
“Sometimes I feel that maybe he grew up a little bit too fast because he wanted to make things easier for me,” said Guadalupe Perez, 44. “Always got the impression that he kind of knew what was going on, like he just understood. … You could see the sadness in his eyes.”
She said she’s proud of her son, even when he chose to live with his aunt and saw her only on weekends.
“He has a good heart. He was always there for his little brother,” she said. “Maybe it’s just something that … got into him, always being there to help someone.”
But Fuentes said he already is thinking much bigger than his first love and about the role that nurses can play in the national debate over health care and the changes to the health care system.
Even though his past is painful, he doesn’t want to put it behind him.
“It’s made me who I am,” he said.
Late one night before graduation, Fuentes scribbled his thoughts about the nursing industry and then read them aloud as if his fellow graduates were listening.
“I am sure every single one of you in those seats, prelicense and licensure students alike, can attest to the roller-coaster ride that your respective nursing journey has taken you on,” he wrote.
“There have been lots of ups and downs, unexpected turns this way, that way, every which way you could and never would have fathomed, but look at us now. We made it!”