Nurse, Heal Thyself

Nurse, Heal Thyself

From Chicken Soup for the Nurse's Soul Second Dose

Nurse, Heal Thyself

Her ways are ways of pleasantness, and all her paths are peace.

Proverbs 3:17

I recognized the legal-sized envelope resting inside my mailbox: my nursing license renewal form. Two years before I had filled out the paperwork to renew my license, hopeful I could resume my career, despite my obvious injuries. It was a hope I had clung to for ten years.

I’d been an impossibly naive young woman, ready to save my little piece of the world at my new job at a downtown Atlanta hospital. With my crisply ironed nursing whites and my freshly printed diploma, I felt ready to fulfill the plans God had laid out for my life.

The post-op patient in bed 419 didn’t mean to hurt me. Although we were not a surgical floor, the man had been assigned to a room at the end of my hall as a favor to one of the doctors on staff. No one expected him to have a drug-induced psychotic episode, least of all a novice nurse like me. With an unnatural scream, he kicked me into the wall. The blow seared a trail of unbelievable pain across my buttocks and down my right leg, ending behind my knee. My toes and the bottom of my foot went numb and cold.

Like a dutiful nurse, I continued working throughout the rest of the night, dragging my right foot a bit as I dispensed medication and attended patients for surgery. Only morning and a visit to the emergency room would reveal the force of the attack on my body. A series of discs in my lower back had been ruptured, putting pressure on my sciatic nerve. The doctors reacted conservatively, treating me with rest, drugs, and traction, but soon it became apparent that surgery was my only option.

No one ever sat me down and told me about the possible long-term effects of my injuries and, to be honest, I never considered it. I naively thought I would have the affected discs repaired, recuperate for a couple of months, then get on with my life. It wasn’t until the day after my surgery, while I drifted in and out of sleep, that I heard a conversation between my husband,Dan, and my neurosurgeon. Profound nerve damage. Chronic pain with periods of paralysis.

“She’ll never be able to work as a nurse again.”

Even in my semiconscious state, my heart shattered. Me, not be a nurse? I couldn’t fathom the idea. I wanted to scream, but couldn’t find my voice.

Slowly, I started to heal. And as my body began to return to normal, so did my will. I decided not to take the doctor’s prognosis lying down. I would fight for my career.

Physical therapy appointments, insurance negotiations, and depression filled my first few weeks post-op. I stopped eating and lost so much weight the visiting nurse thought I had an eating disorder. The arguments began between the hospital and my doctors as to what kind of work I would physically be able to do. Eventually, the hospital and I parted ways.

I started searching the want ads, but each interview ended in disappointment. No one would hire an inexperienced nurse with my medical history. Some of my friends suggested I keep my back problems a secret, but I couldn’t do that and live with myself.

At twenty-three, I found myself unemployable.

But I refused to give up. Six months and hundreds of résumés later, a research facility offered me a position. For the next six years, I worked in pediatric research, teaching parents how to care for their high-risk infants. I was finally doing the work God had called me to do.

Yet, physically, I wasn’t doing so well. I tried to pretend everything was okay, laughing over the times I’d trip over my numb foot or ignoring the pain running across my hip and down my leg. When I began to fall on a consistent basis, I contacted my doctor.

An alphabet of tests followed—MRIs, EMGs, CAT scans. Weeks later, the doctor had a verdict: stenosis of the spinal column, extensive nerve damage, more ruptured discs. My nursing career was officially over.

My body understood the truth, but my heart rebelled. Nursing defined me as a person, defined the faith I had in God’s plan for my life. If my career was gone, who was I? What was I going to do with the rest of my life?

I was ashamed of my disability, believing it made me less of a person. In my anger, I backed away from my husband, daughters, and friends. I thought I was doing them a favor. After all, why would they want to have anything to do with a twenty-nine-year-old cripple? Our home became a battlefield as I slipped further into depression. One evening, Dan came home to his packed clothes and my demand that he leave.

My world imploded.

“Please get some help,” my parents begged. I agreed to meet with a counselor who helped me face the anger that had been brewing inside of me since the attack. I finally asked the question that had plagued me since the moment my patient had slammed me against the wall. Why had God allowed this to happen to me?

Her answer? “Why not?”

She told me the story of Paul, a man who had seen his life change on the road to Damascus. He too had a disability, a thorn of the flesh that he asked the Lord to take from him. Paul never found relief from his physical suffering but that didn’t stop him from living a worthwhile life.

I had a choice. I could live my life sitting at home, pain and anger my constant companions. Or I could get involved with the world around me, starting with my husband and girls. Would the pain go away? No, but the worthlessness of my existence would cease.

Within a week, I reconciled with Dan. I started slowly, volunteering in my daughter’s classroom.My involvement soon blossomed into teaching mentally disabled children. Our family went back to church, where I found new joy in singing with the choir. The angry wrinkles that slashed my face slowly faded into smile lines. Although the physical pain never went away, I found a life worth living.

Nursing still plays a part in my life. The skills I learned helped me to care for my dying grandfather. And my father swears he is still around because I forced him to recognize the symptoms of a heart attack.

Though nursing no longer defines who I am, as I sorted the mail, I knew I had a choice.

I tossed the envelope aside, unopened. I knew I didn’t need paperwork to do His will. License or no, in my caring heart, I am still a nurse.

Patty Smith Hall

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