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Uniforms don't matter but experience does

Once upon a time, hospital visitors could easily spot a nurse. She was dressed from head to toe in a white uniform and topped off with a cap uniquely trimmed to indicate the nursing school from which she graduated.

Today, however, nurses go from bed to bed dressed in all sorts of mismatched shirts and slacks representing every color in the rainbow. But how about the care nurses bring to the sick? Does the passing of the all-white uniform signal a decline in the level of nursing services?

I first became interested in nurses' uniforms during a 1979 hospital stay in Virginia. At that time, all of the nurses dressed in a white uniform of one design or another. What caught my eye, however, was that only one of the nurses wore a matching cap.

This particular nurse was somewhat older than the others. One day I asked her why the other nurses didn't wear a cap. "They don't take pride in their work," was her reply. Pride in one's work is, of course, important. But if the alleged lack of pride accounted for the missing caps, as the older nurse claimed, the hatless nurses, as far as I was concerned, were as equally skilled as the more experienced nurse.

In the 1980s and 1990s, many pediatric nurses shifted from white to colored outfits because the traditional uniforms seemed to frighten children.

During a recent stay at Millard Fillmore Suburban Hospital, I had one more chance to personally size up how nurses dress. I found that not only is the cap nowhere to be found, the white uniform is also a thing of the past. The closest thing to a uniform these days is a nurse dressed in baggy blue or green hospital-issued scrubs.

For the most part, nurses seem to shop at leisure world, probably bringing home what's on sale.

OK. Uniforms are out. So what? Besides a casual dress code these days, everyone in the hospital is on an informal, first-name basis. They called me Ron, and I called them by their first names as well. So, does this easy-going style affect the level of care a sick guy gets? Not a bit. My nurses at Millard Fillmore -- AnneMarie, Helen, Jamie, Nancy, Sheila and Rene -- were all hatless and great.

What I did notice, however, is that the older nurses wear an aura of experience. Perhaps it is because they already have cared for a lot of guys like me, with similar problems. Maybe that's why the older nurses gave me an extra dose of confidence. It's not that the younger nurses lacked the needed skills. They were fine on that score. But the older nurses just seemed to have a steadier, firmer hand on the irrigation syringe when it came to getting a patient over a painful bump in the road.

Bottom line: Uniforms may not matter but experience makes a difference. Like every other line of work, practice, trial and error, in other words, experience, is how we all learn to do our jobs better.

Based on my research, the lack of traditional uniforms has not harmed the way nurses do their jobs. Maybe uniforms, in general, are an expensive and largely unneeded symbol associated with other lines of work.

Are uniforms a facade behind which city policemen and firemen, airline pilots and even soldiers and Marines hide? Would crime go up if cops wore leisure suits? Would soldiers shoot less straight if they traded in their uniforms for jeans and sweat shirts?

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