The class clown who became a nurse

BY DAVID BLUMENKRANTZ • Originally published in Scrubs   JUNE 3, 2010


Second-career nurses come from all walks of life, but few from a background so seemingly incongruous to nursing as that of Bonnie Brennan, a passionate and dedicated member of the nursing team in the ICU at Childrens Hospital Los Angeles.

A woman of many talents, the charismatic Staten Island native has a background in speech and theater, and has appeared on stage, in films and in television commercials.

For several years, Bonnie was a regular fixture in the stand-up comedy scene in Los Angeles. In the late 1990s, she worked as MC and performed regularly at the Hollywood Improv, opening for celebrity comedians like Dave Chappelle and Chelsea Handler. She has also done shows with Drew Carey, Jeff Garlin and countless others.

“I was always the class clown, even in grade school,” Bonnie laughs. “I got it from my dad, a natural performer and the consummate joke-teller. I was in awe of him growing up.”

Bonnie describes her stand-up material as “slices of life.” Relocating to Los Angeles in 1996, she was a “newly divorced 30-year-old, seemingly surrounded by 20-year-olds.” She joked about that and other topics such as her Catholic upbringing. Her compassion was already evident, and Bonnie was a regular participant in comedy shows sponsored by the Theater of Hope for Abused Women. She left the grind of the stand-up life behind when she got engaged to her second husband, a corporate executive with Robeks Juice. They have a two-year-old son named Dylan.

Bonnie recalls how her father also took her to Broadway shows, cultivating her interest in a more serious acting career. “Acting is something I’ve always done, and still do,” she explains, although since the birth of her son, there is less time for it. She tries to do one play a year. In 2008, she had a supporting role in Someday, a play produced by the Cornerstone Theater. Bonnie describes the play as being about the “trials and tribulations people go through to have children. I was passionate about it because Dylan was conceived IVF, and this play addressed that topic.”

Also a gifted writer and speaker, Bonnie has been the keynote speaker for the Johnson & Johnson Nursing Gala, and won first place honors in both the 2007 and 2009 Childrens Hospital Nursing Essay Contests. In this excerpt from her 2009 essay, Bonnie wrote about the way she was inspired to pursue a career in nursing after her experience with a home health nurse during her father’s battle with the disease. It proved to be a life-changing experience:

“While my memory of this period could very easily be one of despair, it is instead one I remember with deep gratitude…thanks to my dad’s home-healthcare nurse, Roseanne. I knew Roseanne genuinely cared about my dad’s well-being, and I was instantly put at ease just knowing that she was his nurse. She would come by on her days off just to see how my dad was doing; she would stay longer than she was required to on the days she was working; she even brought my dad Christmas and birthday gifts and, when I was back in L.A., Roseanne would call to update me on my dad’s condition and ask how I was holding up. Roseanne was more than just my dad’s nurse; she had become a part of our family. Perhaps most importantly, every time I saw my dad interact with Roseanne, he was laughing. My dad loved to laugh. I remember the exact moment I had the thought: ‘If I could give back to another family even one-tenth of what Roseanne had done for my family, then I’d really feel like I had done something truly worthwhile with my life.’ It was at that very moment that I decided to become a nurse. When I told my dad of my decision, he proudly declared, ‘I’ll be front and center at your nursing school graduation.’ As for the nurse who inspired me? Roseanne cared for my father until the day he died: April 19, 2005. Three weeks before I started nursing school.”

Bonnie began her nursing career at the relatively late age of 40. In 2005, she began the one-year program at Mount Saint Mary’s College. During her training, Bonnie did a pediatric rotation in the ICU at Childrens Hospital Los Angeles, and knew right away this was where she belonged. She received the Accelerated Nursing Award at Mount Saint Mary’s, and by September 2006 had been hired at Childrens Hospital. “I’ve never seen anything like the teamwork, the atmosphere and the caliber of care they provide for the families. It’s really tops in the field.”

In another excerpt from her 2009 essay, Bonnie expressed her awareness of the enormity of the life-changing decision she had made:

“And so…I began my nursing career in the Pediatric Intensive Care Unit (PICU) at Childrens Hospital Los Angeles, humbled to be working side by side with such compassionate and seasoned nurses, and amazed at the level of knowledge and skills that these women and men had acquired. Perhaps even more so, I was in awe of the seemingly effortless ability with which my coworkers practiced, and the pure instincts they possessed. Indeed, I began to wonder if, at such a late starting age, I would ever be able to practice at the same level, and more importantly…if I would ever be able to give back to another family….”

More than three years later, Bonnie expresses no regret, only an even deeper sense of humility as she grows into the life of nursing. “I measure myself against the nurses I work with. I’m truly in awe, inspired and honored to work with them.” She describes the ICU as being an extremely intense work environment, and reels off the roll call of parents’ worse nightmares that she and her fellow nurses deal with daily. “Car accidents, asthma, cardiac kids, cancer, children who are suddenly diagnosed with brain tumors, renal failure. The swine flu hit us very hard this past year,” she adds.

There are times when a sharp sense of humor serves to lighten the load, and Bonnie seems sincere in admitting she’s not necessarily the funniest of the bunch. “I notice there’s a certain personality type in ICU nurses,” she explains. “They’re some of the most intense, funny people I’ve met. Humor with the staff is a way to share a very intense workplace. There are a lot of tough moments. It’s nice to be able to step out of a moment of grief and find some humor with my coworkers, to lighten things up a little.”

As Bonnie speaks, it’s evident that she is truly striving to live up to the words she wrote so eloquently in her essay, “…if I would ever be able to give back to another family….” She knows that her work puts her into a position where, for many families, she becomes a buffer between them and the incomprehensible suffering their children endure, and in many cases, an intimate player in the real-life drama of life and death. When asked whether her background in acting helps her in these situations, Bonnie answers carefully: “I wouldn’t say acting, because that implies that you are feigning emotions.” She explains that, if anything, her training as an actor allows her to accept the gamut of emotions a nurse must experience. “As an actor you’re trained to emote, to access your emotions. I’ve cried a lot with families, and I don’t feel uncomfortable when families cry.”

There was no masking the hurt in Bonnie’s eyes as she did what she could to comfort a very special patient, a nine-year-old girl who died on December 30 after a protracted battle with HLH. Bonnie says that during the weeks she cared for the young girl, the first thing she did at the beginning of each shift was to hug the mother, and she admits that they cried a lot together. When the child died, the mother appreciated Bonnie’s efforts to such an extent that she invited her to the funeral.

While it’s obvious that Bonnie is gratified that she can indeed give back to other families, she keeps things in their proper perspective. “Ultimately, it’s not about me. I don’t want it to seem like my emotions are more important than theirs.” A quiver catches in her throat. “Now I am truly thankful for what I have. I get to go home to my healthy son. She [the patient’s mother] goes home to make funeral arrangements.”

As if realizing her last statement was a bit too heavy, Bonnie flashes the million-dollar smile she now employs to comfort children and families. She’s worlds away from the stage lights and comedy clubs, and this is exactly what she signed up for. “I would never discourage anyone from changing careers and going into nursing,” she says emphatically. “It is so much more rewarding than you could ever imagine. What I’ve gotten out of the experience is so much more than I’ve given.”