He was riding in his aunt's sedan, a kid in elementary school, watching senior citizens walk in and out of the Lynwood retirement home where his mother worked. Then she emerged in scrubs.

That's it.

David Fuentes holds on tightly to that simple memory: his mother at work. It's easier than recalling many other parts of his childhood — "a blur," as he calls it.

Like the time when he was little and his father, drunk, socked his mother. She remembers the blood gushing from her face and her child standing in the bathroom saying, "Mom, Mom."

Or the times when he was older and his mother had fallen into addiction. He would stay awake fearful of what might come when she went out looking for a fix.

Or the times he took care of his siblings when no one else would.

"Just like the basic things. That's all I really remember," Fuentes says, "kind of helping to make sure they got fed, and just keeping them company, making sure they were OK."

His face tightens slightly with some questions about the past. But he knows he doesn't need to remember everything.

He has his one simple memory. His mother, a nurse.

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She always dreamed of becoming a registered nurse, but life got in the way.

"There's a huge family dynamic," says Fuentes, 26. "I wanted to fulfill for my mom what she envisioned for herself, but could never do."

This summer, he graduated from nursing school at UCLA and landed a job in the intensive-care unit at UCLA Medical Center, Santa Monica.

Beyond being a trailblazer in his family, Fuentes is among a group of men redefining the nursing industry. Although the profession is still dominated by women, the number of men is on the rise.

The percentage of male registered nurses more than tripled from 2.7% in 1970 to 9.6% in 2011, and the proportion of licensed male practical and vocational nurses increased from 3.9% to 8.1% over the same period, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

Researchers cite various reasons for the shift, including diminished legal barriers, increasing demand for nurses as the U.S. population ages, and middle-class pay.

But for Fuentes, a main motivation is the solace he finds in being a caretaker.

"Everything is left behind," he says. "That's why I love it so much."

"It's like therapy ... kind of our way of dealing with our issues."

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