81: From Illness Comes Strength

81: From Illness Comes Strength

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: Find Your Happiness

From Illness Comes Strength

We acquire the strength we have overcome.

~Ralph Waldo Emerson

It seemed unbelievable that anyone could have been both a nursing student and a patient at the same time. That is the truth I struggled with every day as I attended my B.S. in Nursing program at Georgetown University from 1999-2002, while also suffering through my second major relapse with Crohn’s disease. Living with a chronic illness, while also attempting to make my dreams come true, was a frustrating experience. I was able to comfort my patients, yet I could not comfort myself. I could relieve the pain of others, yet I could not find pain relief myself. Still, I know I was a better nursing student for having been a patient. I often knew what my patients were going through, because I had lived through it, too.

As a student nurse, I reassured my patients that they would be okay, but I knew all too well about unpredictable tomorrows. In my blue and white nursing student uniform, I stood at the bedside of a fellow student with Crohn’s disease who had taken the semester off to care for his health. Three hours later, I lay in a blue and white hospital gown on an exam table in my doctor’s office, trying to ignore the searing pain that was shooting through me as my abdomen was palpated by my gastroenterologist.

I was diagnosed with Crohn’s at the age of eleven, and the carefree laugh I had as a little girl got lost somewhere between my prednisone chipmunk cheeks, my IV feeding line, and the scars marking my abdominal surgeries. When I started working with pediatric patients in nursing school, I would hear them laugh, and the lost little girl inside me prayed they would never have to endure what I did as a child, that they would never lose their innocent giggles to their illnesses, as I had.

I spent my teenage years pretending the Crohn’s did not exist, a façade I was able to maintain long enough to move to Boston and attend journalism school. But when the tests confirmed the Crohn’s was back and my first remission had ended, I had to leave that life. It was then that I finally allowed myself to think about what having Crohn’s really meant.

There are defining moments in life that some of us are lucky enough to realize early on. My moment arrived unexpectedly, in 1998, after a particularly invasive exam from a new doctor in Massachusetts who acted as if we were old friends, although we were strangers. I walked out of the exam room feeling as if my body had once again turned on me in some cruel, ironic joke. I wanted to cry, but there was no one to lean on. My family and friends were hours away. I tried to be brave, but a nurse I had never met before took one look at me and saw right through me. She invited me to sit down with her, and wrapped her arms around me. She gave me the only hug I would have that day and whispered to me, “It’s okay to cry here,” and so I did.

That was my defining moment, when I found not only solace and comfort in that nurse’s embrace, but a purpose in the embrace of nursing. Suddenly I knew, without a doubt, my life’s purpose was to become a nurse and help other sick children the way so many nurses and doctors had helped me. Less than a year later, by the end of 1999, I was well into my first clinical rotation as a student nurse at Georgetown University, working towards a BSN and focusing my clinical studies on pediatric gastroenterology. I also worked part-time at two different children’s hospitals. Oh, and in 2000, I had two abdominal surgeries without having to take a semester off from school.

Every day, I showed the world that it was possible to be both a nursing student and a patient. My days began much like everyone else’s, but somewhere between brushing my teeth and going to class, my life changed. I swallowed a handful of pills and skipped breakfast out of fear that I’d need to go to the bathroom while stuck in rush hour traffic. And yes, my days continued to be unique, more like those of my patients than those of my fellow nursing students, as I made trips to numerous doctors, picked up more pills at the pharmacy, planned my meals around my meds, and tried to make time to rest between classes.

By juggling those two identities every day, I learned something about being a patient that I never knew before: from illness comes strength. And I learned something about being a nurse, too, in nursing school — that there is nothing more important than real nursing care. Still, there were days during my nursing school clinicals, and at my jobs, that I wondered if perhaps I cared too much for my sick little patients, days when I had to take a deep breath to compose myself before entering their rooms. Despite my concern that I would respond too emotionally to every sick child I worked with, I returned to my pediatric clinicals and my jobs week after week, certain that my presence in these children’s lives would make it all worthwhile, no matter how emotionally painful it was for me to work with them at the time. A five-year-old boy newly diagnosed with Crohn’s disease proved me right. His mother feared they would always be in and out of the hospital, but I shared with her the fact that I also had inflammatory bowel disease and that this had not stopped me from realizing my dreams. The greatest gift I was able to give this family was proof that life after such a diagnosis does go on.

In 2001, I underwent more tests, which unfortunately showed that the remission I had been in since my second bowel resection in 2000 was now over. In spite of my active Crohn’s disease (or maybe because of it), and my determination to succeed, I finished my junior year of nursing school with honors. But I do not simply mean good grades. I mean that I finished the year having touched the lives of dozens of patients and their families in ways I would not have had I not been ill, as well.

Due to my Crohn’s flare-up in 2001, I had to take a semester off from nursing school. But I knew that I would never let Crohn’s beat me... it might knock me out once in a while, but I would always be the ultimate winner in this battle. And, although I did not “officially graduate” with my class in May of 2002, the nursing school faculty urged me to come to graduation anyway, in cap and gown, to wear my Sigma Theta Tau nursing honor society rope proudly. At first I did not want to go, and I could not understand why they would want me to. It turned out they needed me there because I was being presented with three awards! I won an award for The Most Publishable Scholarly Paper, I won a Dean’s Recognition award for superior service to the school, and I was given an honorable mention in a speech; they spoke of my journalism background, my writing and editing, how I’d been published, and how I made their school a better and more respected and famous place. I was stunned! And, in the end, despite the surgeries, hospitalizations and Crohn’s flare-ups I had experienced while in nursing school, I graduated from Georgetown University magna cum laude in December of 2002, and my first nursing job was at the #1 hospital in the country, Johns Hopkins. So, you see, no matter what obstacles life throws at you, the key is to take them in stride, to never give up. But really, in my experience, the most important thing is to have faith in yourself.

To this day I lead a double life, just as I did in nursing school ten years ago, and because there is no cure for Crohn’s disease, I always will live the life of both a patient and a nurse, but I am living it for myself and for my patients... and in honor of the nurse who cried with me that day when I otherwise would have cried alone.

~Tracey Miller Offutt

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