Coming from a childhood that was full of children – including his seven brothers and sisters and plenty of foster children his parents cared for – it is no wonder Dr. Richard Cowling, PhD, APRN-BC, AHN-BC, FAAN, and vice president of academic affairs at Chamberlain College of Nursing, felt at home volunteering in a hospital as a teen.
He actually felt so at home, he even missed classes to spend more time at the hospital interacting with patients and giving them necessary care. But did he ever think he could turn his passion into a career? Not until a singular defining moment changed everything.
Sitting in the cafeteria with a group of students he was working with, Cowling recalls being asked about his plans for the future. “I said I would probably go into accounting or teaching,” recalls Cowling. “I really didn't know.” When they asked him why he wasn't going to go into nursing, his reply was straightforward.
“My response was, 'What are you talking about?'” he says. As a teenage boy in the mid-1960s of Virginia, he had no idea men could be nurses, let alone make it a lifelong career. But he adored his work. “I fell into nursing without knowing what nursing was about,” he says.
But in the 1960s finding a male nurse role model was nearly impossible as few men followed the women-dominated career track. When it came time to tell his parents, Cowling approached with some apprehension. As a career military guy, Cowling's dad encouraged him to join the military, but also saw his son's career goals with a practical mind. “He saw a secure future for me,” says Cowling. As the family lived on military bases around the world (Cowling was born in the Philippines), the family saw both genders working as nurses. “They were used to men taking care of people, so it was not unfamiliar to them,” he says. But they never brought it up as a career with their son because they didn't know he was interested in a nursing career, he says.
His family's support was essential during Cowling's first few years. As the second man to enroll in a nursing program in Virginia, he stood out from the crowd. “The first several years were tough,” he recalls. “Not only was being a nurse new to me as a man, but it was new to patients being cared for by a man.” He experienced both positive and negative reactions from patients and even doctors would sometimes have a tough time. Few, for example, allowed him into the labor and delivery rooms during his obstetric rotations.
“These were minor things in retrospect,” he says. “It taught me a lot about being respectful and about privacy. There were stereotypes of men and that was troublesome, but what was significant was being judged for what I knew and how I delivered care, not just my gender.”
Cowling went on to significant career achievements. In addition to his Chamberlain post, he also is editor of the Journal of Holistic Nursing. Past duties have included being a staff nurse, a private practice nurse, and a college professor. He has been the director of nursing in a nursing home and worked in a VA hospital as a mental health nurse. While at the University of North Carolina Greensboro, he launched the school's first nursing Doctor of Philosophy program. And he has received many awards including being named the American Holistic Nurses Association’s 2008 Holistic Nurse of the Year.
What makes him most proud are the times when he could simultaneously help people, teach students, and do research. “Patients are a huge source of knowledge,” he says.
Through his trailblazing career as a male nurse, Cowling also assumed another role. He was the first single man in the state of Virginia to adopt a daughter, Tonya, who just celebrated her 39th birthday. As a single dad getting his master's degree and then his PhD, Cowling formed a supportive circle of others in his circumstances. “We would help each other out,” he says.
The role of dad was natural for Cowling, he says, because he had the skills and competencies from living in his large family and a naturally nurturing personality. He knew how to change diapers, feed little ones, and keep them entertained. Tonya, he says changed his life.
With his groundbreaking roles, Cowling now looks back and is satisfied with how far things have come. Cowling says it is amazing how rapidly men have become more prominent in nursing, despite still being small in number in the field, and that gender is becoming less of a debate.
“It really isn't about gender, but about how your commitment, competency, knowledge, and abilities overshadow all of that,” he says. Cowling believes skills should lead the discussion. “We need more nurses who are committed,” he says. “If we don't consider men as sources of nursing, we miss out on that opportunity.”
And Cowling also wants anyone considering nursing to realize it is not always a hospital setting job. “There are so many opportunities in nursing and so many ways you can contribute,” he says. Nursing can be community based or involve teaching, research, administration, anesthesiology, or even midwifery. “Don't ever let gender be the factor that keeps you from considering nursing,” he says.