Matthew Lewis cared for his fellow troops worldwide—from Jacksonville, Florida to Okinawa, Japan—as a U.S. Navy corpsman, the name for an enlisted sailor with formal medical training.
Corpsmen are also often called “doc” in military parlance, and so was Lewis, who served for five years on ships around the world before using his GI Bill to come to the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga to study nursing.
He graduates this Saturday, May 7, and is moving straight into a full-time position in the intensive care unit at nearby Erlanger Hospital, where he’s been doing hands-on clinical work as a nursing technician for his bachelor’s degree since March.
“It’s not just a job. Nursing is something that you can do to make a difference in peoples’ lives and help them,” said the 26-year-old Indiana native. “Getting to do that is fulfilling on another level than just making money.”
Matthew Lewis was a featured student speaker at the 2022 Scholarship Luncheon.
Lewis said nursing is a natural fit but that he never considered the field until he joined the Navy.
“There’s kind of a stigma that only women do nursing. But in the military, there are more male nurses than in the civilian population. And to get to see men take on that role and do a really good job and to be able to care for people and take of them in a significant way, it was something I could see myself doing,” he said.
Compassion is key to nursing, not gender, which is why Lewis gravitated toward the increasingly high-demand field.
“I’ve always been an empathetic person. When I see someone who’s hurting, I try to put myself in their shoes,” he said. “When I can help stop them from suffering and help them get better—because I’m empathetic—I think it’s more rewarding.”
Lewis has worked in various parts of the hospital for his clinical experience and said the ICU was his first choice when it came to possible post-graduation assignments.
The unit’s cohesion and collegiality mean “for them, there’s no such thing as ‘That’s not my job,’” he said. “The other nurses and doctors I get to work with are very welcoming and want to help you learn. Everyone is helping everyone else. Patients are getting great care and it’s less stressful.”
Still, he’s most drawn to the ICU because of the acute cases. Patients are sick and injured. Many are near death, which can be a particularly vulnerable and scary time for patients and their family members.
But Lewis, like many who work in palliative care, has wrapped his brain and heart around death to provide the best care possible.
“It’s sad when a person is passing, but it’s a beautiful moment because a lot of time that means their suffering is ending. Their pain is ending,” said Lewis.
His perspective shifted after witnessing a particularly caring and effective hospice nurse in action and reading the 2014 book “Being Mortal: Medicine and What Matters in the End.”
“It changed my view of what the end of life can look like,” he said.
Lewis didn’t serve on the battlefield while in the Navy. But he was a first-line healthcare provider for troops at sea and in the field and helped treat survivors on a ship off the coast of Australia after a 2017 MV-22 Osprey helicopter crash that killed three Marines and injured 23.
He also developed a keen sense of the importance of mental health to overall health as a corpsman.
“I’ve lost more friends in the military to suicide than from combat and training accidents,” he said.
“Marines are in stressful environments, often separated from their families, so I’d get knocks on my door when someone wasn’t feeling good—but also when they just needed somebody to listen and to feel heard,” he said.
Lewis said he’s interested in pursuing a doctoral degree in nursing at UTC but wants to get more hands-on experience first. After graduation, he also plans to indulge in more rock climbing, his favorite pastime; it’s one reason he chose UTC and Chattanooga.
Lewis earned his associate’s degree in the military and was ready for nursing school when he got here in the spring of 2020 despite the onset of the pandemic and adapting to life outside the Navy.
“That military-to-civilian transition was made a lot easier because of the support system at UTC,” he said.
And COVID-19 brought him and his fellow nursing students together in unexpected ways.
“That experience made us more flexible and our class bonded together,” he said, “so it stopped being competing for the best grades. Instead, we all help each other out and learn more,”
Lewis said he had learned the most from Erlanger nurse and UTC nursing instructor Justin Reason, a fellow veteran.
“Seeing him as a nurse and seeing how good he was at being a nurse gave me another positive encouragement that I could do this, too. He’s a good nurse and he’s also a vet, so getting to have that direct influence and role model was really awesome.”
As for how to destigmatize “the male nurse,” Lewis said: “When I was in the schools for my clinicals and working in the nurse’s office, it’s about getting to the know the kids and outreach, modeling that I’m a nurse. I’m a guy; you can do it, too.
“It’s a really rewarding profession and you don’t have to be woman or a girl to be a nurse.”