A memory popped up on my Facebook recently; it was a photo of me, at a conference in Florida a few years ago. I was the nurse on a discussion panel with a group of pharmacists. Although it was a very proud moment, looking back at it evoked mixed feelings. “That was when I was somebody. Now I am nothing.” I didn't allow myself to stay in that place very long, but it made me realize that I am still grieving the untimely loss of my career owing to arthritis.
Grief comes in waves; you never know when it's going to strike. We usually think of grief in the context of losing a loved one. Grief is not linear; we can be angry, or sad, or in denial, all in one day. Losing a career that you love can be devastating.
My nursing career was spent in hospitals, working mostly in critical care as a bedside nurse, then in management. I worked hard and my work was a large part of my sense of self-worth. I loved patient care and the satisfaction of making a difference. As a manager, I felt my primary mission was to enable those I served to do their best work. I had up to 100 employees who looked up to me and called me “boss.” I was somebody. Now what am I? An acquaintance asked me, “Didn't you used to be a nurse?”
For some time, I had recurrent dreams that I was working in the ICU but couldn't do the job. I would look around for help, to get into the med room or find equipment—I knew I could do patient care but couldn't navigate the computer or environment.
The dreams stopped after I encountered a tragic event when I was driving home one hot afternoon. A young woman was lying on the road, bystander CPR in progress, while onlookers waited for the ambulance to arrive. I asked if they needed a nurse, jumped out of my car, and walked quickly to her side. I didn't stop to wonder if I could get on my knees on the road in the 105° heat; I just did. Within seconds, I did an assessment of the patient and the scene, asked the bystanders appropriate questions, and took over compressions. I realized that I could not pump hard and fast for very long. A man came to her other side to take over compressions. By then, the ambulance had arrived, and I got up with assistance. I offered comforting words and a hug to the distraught driver of the truck that had struck her.
I was shaken up when I got home. I mean, I've done CPR in the hospital, but doing it on the road is quite different. This young woman was still pink and healthy looking from the neck down. She had blonde hair and was wearing a T-shirt and shorts. In the hospital, there is a whole resuscitation team working in concert, with monitors and crash carts. On my knees in the gravel, it was just me and her. Despite our efforts, the woman was pronounced dead at the scene.
This terrible tragedy made me realize that I am still a nurse. I might not be pushing stretchers and starting IVs, but I still have the knowledge and critical thinking of a nurse. You don't lose those skills, no matter how long you've been away from the bedside. I didn't save the woman, but I know that the other bystanders and I did everything we could to give her a chance of survival. I got a note from her family thanking me for my efforts. I made a difference.
Losing my career abruptly did not give me a chance to prepare emotionally, like you would when you retire on your own timetable. It was sudden, and for a while I kept myself so busy that I didn't let the grief process happen. I didn't know what to look forward to in my new situation. I had to quit asking, why me? and instead ask, what's next?
Recently, I found a way to use my nursing skills as an administrator of an online support group for diffuse idiopathic skeletal hyperostosis (DISH). As a nurse, I can read medical literature and help laypeople understand it. I don't offer medical advice, but I do participate in discussions, and the “nurse me” comes out of hiding.
I am now working on a study exploring quality of life related to this condition. I'm determined to publish my results: a brand-new challenge. Maybe my nursing career has just taken a turn in a new direction. Perhaps I can be a nurse who makes a difference, not by giving meds or doing treatments, but by putting words on paper.