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Top 10 TV Nurses and What You Can Learn from Them


October 20, 2009

Nurses in pop culture are portrayed in all kinds of ways, from stereotypical assistants to ball-busting managers. If you’re looking for a little inspiration while you’re in nursing school, consider the experiences of these fictional nurses from classic TV shows and new series. From army nurses to ER managers to doctor’s office assistants, here are the top 10 TV nurses and lessons you can learn from each of them.

  1. LaVerne Todd, Empty Nest: Nurse LaVerne Todd, who played Dr. Harry Weston’s assistant on Empty Nest, was an audience favorite whose strong southern accent and strong-willed personality provided comic relief and inspiration for modern nurses. Todd was outspoken, stubborn and completely in charge. She managed Dr. Weston’s office more than he did, and even signed her own paychecks. She teaches nurses that being an "assistant" doesn’t mean you have to sit quietly as a behind-the-scenes character: as a nurse, you can still be in charge.
  2. Carol Hathaway, ER: ER‘s first starring nurse was played by Julianna Margulies from 1994 to 2000. She was the off and on love interest of George Clooney’s Dr. Doug Ross and a highly respected ER nurse manager who often stood up and rallied for nurse’s causes in the hospital. She famously told Dr. Peter Benson in season one that "it’s the nurses that make this place run and not you." Nurse Hathaway was a sometimes moody and depressed character, and was forced to step down from her Nurse Manager position at the clinic. Real-life nurses can still look up to Nurse Hathaway for her commitment to the nursing profession and loyalty to her fellow nurses as she manages the ER.
  3. Jackie Peyton, Nurse Jackie: Edie Falco plays Nurse Jackie Peyton on the controversial Showtime series Nurse Jackie. As she tries to make the best of a fledgling health care system, Falco plays Robin Hood to her patients in morally ambiguous ways, like stealing from criminals in order to help innocent patients in trouble. Peyton, who some real-life nurses are wary about because she has her own issue with recreational drug use, shows audiences that nurses, and others who work in the health care, are human just like everyone else, and are victims of a troubled health care system just like patients.
  4. Veronica Callahan, Mercy: Taylor Schilling plays Nurse Veronica Callahan, a pretty but troubled nurse who has just returned to New Jersey’s Mercy Hospital from a tour in Iraq. Callahan tries to deal with her disturbing memories from Iraq as she works in a hospital that barely respects its nurses, or pays them. Real-life nurses will appreciate Mercy‘s portrayal of Callahan as the underdog, and although she is expertly qualified and well-liked by other nurses and her patients, she is stuck in an elitist cycle within the hospital and as she socializes in and around New Jersey and New York City with friends and love interests.
  5. Samantha Taggart, ER: Real nurses loved Linda Caredellini’s Nurse Samantha Taggart on ER for her fierce independence and fighting spirit. Samantha, or Sam as she is usually called, is a single mom with a rocky family history, who falls in love with Dr. Luka Kovac. Samantha is also loved by modern nurses for her decision to pursue a higher degree in nursing and become a nurse anesthethetist instead of abandoning nursing to become a doctor, as other TV nurses have done.
  6. Christina Hawthorne, HawthoRNe: The pint-sized, spirited Jada Pinkett Smith plays the no-nonsense Christina Hawthorne on TNT’s HawthoRNe. She is the Chief Nursing Officer who seems to be in a constant battle with hospital administrators over patient care and nurse benefits and is always trying to spend more time with her teenage daughter. Nurses should respect Hawthorne’s ability to think on her feet and solve professional and personal problems in creative ways.
  7. Carla Espinosa, Scrubs: Carla Espinosa, the Dominican born nurse at Sacred Heart Hospital, played by Judy Reyes, has to put up with a lot of nonsense from her physician friends and superiors. But nurses can take pointers from Espinosa, who never lets a young doctor’s bloated ego make her feel less important or less in charge.
  8. Abby Lockhart, ER: Maura Tierney played one of ER‘s most famous nurses, Abby Lockhart. Lockhart started on the show as a labor and delivery nurse under Carol Hathaway but then decided to restart medical school after working as a nurse to pay for her then-husband’s medical training. Lockhart has to stop medical school again after her ex-husband goes bankrupt and can no longer pay her tuition. Dr. Kerry Weaver offers Lockhart a nursing position in the ER, which she accepts, until she is able to return to medical school in Season 10. Lockhart, who has a tumultuous relationship with her bipolar mother, played by Sally Field, also struggles with relationships with love interests Dr. Luka Kovac and Dr. Carter. Nurses who suffer as many career setbacks at Lockhart should feel inspired to stay positive and never give up.
  9. Major Margaret "Hot Lips" Houlihan, M*A*S*H: One of M*A*S*H‘s hottest babes and TV’s most famous nurses was Major Margaret "Hot Lips" Houlihan, who was the daughter of a colonel and who grew up in the army environment. Houlihan plays the head of the Army Nurse Corps and is incredibly strict and impatient with other nurses and doctors in the beginning, though she carries on affairs with colleagues. Nurses can learn how to balance their personal and professional lives and discover ways to become more patient and accepting with co-workers as Houlihan does.
  10. Nurse Dixie McCall, Emergency!: Julie London played Dixie McCall, R.N. on the NBC series which aired from 1972-1977. Like Veronica Callahan, McCall had experience working as an army nurse, though she served during the Korean War. On the show, she was the chief ER nurse and fought to improve the paramedic program and demanded higher expectations and standards from medics. She mentored younger health care professionals and refused a position as a nurse supervisor because she didn’t want a desk job. Nurses today should still feel inspired by McCall’s dedication to her program and passion for nursing.