Better pay, ample jobs, career mobility and even an emphasis on the rigorous demands of the job have combined to lure men into a realm dominated by women.
"It is a field that is defined by gender for most people," said Michael Brakel, 30, of Honolulu, an incoming senior nursing student at Hawaii Pacific University.
But Brakel, secretary-treasurer of the National Student Nurses' Association, said gender becomes irrelevant, "the moment any man steps onto a floor to take care of a sick child or someone who is dying."
Of the nation's 2.7 million nurses, an estimated 146,902, or 5.4 percent, are men, according to a 2000 survey by the Division of Nursing of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. That was up from 2.7 percent in 1980, the survey found.
Men represent 8.3 percent of students in four-year college degree nursing programs and 16.1 percent in two-year associate programs, according to the National League for Nursing and the American Association of Colleges of Nursing.
The Bush administration said last month that the 2 million health care workers now employed will need to triple by 2050 to meet the needs of the large, aging baby boom generation. More than 30 states are grappling with a shortage.
The need for new nurses has spurred an attempt to lure men into the profession and some observers see signs that the push is paying off.
Last year, Johnson & Johnson began a national nursing recruiting promotion that featured men in nearly half the advertising. The University of Iowa and the Oregon Center for Nursing show men prominently in nursing roles in brochures, posters and Web sites.
And the American Association of Colleges of Nursing advises schools on how to recruit men, offering suggestions such as advertising in the sports pages and emphasizing the tough image of emergency room nursing.
Joe Niemczura, 48, of Ellsworth, Maine, an intensive care nurse and nursing instructor, said he had one man in a 19-member senior nursing class at Husson College in Bangor last spring. He said a sense of humor helps overcome mental barriers.
"People were surprised that I knew as much about breast feeding as I did," said Niemczura, who describes himself as a pioneer among men who have taught obstetrical nursing.
Rob Davis, 41, tries to link male interests to nursing, mentioning opportunities as nurses in the military and the toughness needed in demanding nursing jobs. Before becoming a nurse, he spent eight years as a police officer in Lexington County, S.C.
"I was out there getting beat up and shot at and spat on — macho as macho can be," he said. "It takes just as much or more courage and intelligence to be a nurse as a police officer."
Still, obstacles to changing traditional mindsets remain.
Jonathan Levenson, 26, of suburban Shaker Heights, who hopes to complete his nursing degree at Cleveland State University by fall, concedes it took him a while to get over the gender issue. There were no lockers for men when Levenson's class conducted its obstetrical nursing rotation in the hospital.
While patients might look at a nurse as a caring mother or sister, Levenson said there's also a role for compassionate men. "You can be their brother," he said.
For classmate Jack Armstrong, 42, of nearby Parma, and many others, nursing represents a second career. Armstrong was a certified emergency medical technician and decided to study nursing after being laid off as a production engineer.
After a 14-month layoff, the flexibility and opportunities made nursing attractive. He has three job offers waiting for him when he finishes his degree, he said.
Brakel, who was outnumbered 10-to-1 by women in his class, thinks an increasing sense of professionalism in the nursing ranks will attract and retain men.
"It's starting to get that prestige that it should have," he said.
Eugene Tyus, 64, who lost both legs to diabetes and circulation problems, has been treated by both men and women nurses. He said gender is not an issue to him.
"They treated me nice," Tyus said while sharing cigarettes with other residents of a senior citizen high-rise apartment building in Cleveland.