It’s an honor to have my post and illustration, A Brief Meditation on Love, Loss, and Nursing, originally published on Off the Charts, the blog of the American Journal of Nursing, featured in the February issue of AJN
Click on the link above to read the issue online, and find look for Best of the Blog, A Brief Meditation on Love, Loss, and Nursing, in the table of contents.
Why is it 2018 feels more like “2017, The Sequel,“ and not an actual New Year?
While I have one or two friends who’ve had an immediate change of luck, many more of us are experiencing 2018 as a poorly constructed, run-on sentence (or rambling blog post) with little progress or clear goals for the future.
Progress requires a release of perceived limitations, and expectations. The process of releasing creates tension similar to a snake shedding its skin, or a butterfly breaking forth from its chrysalis. Things become too tight and uncomfortable before breakthrough occurs.
Nearing the end of January, the growing and stretching feels more intense than in previous years, and I find myself sympathizing with Alice for choosing to follow a rather strange rabbit down a hole, without thought of where it would lead, or how she would return. “Don’t over think it, just do it.”
Choosing to go down the rabbit hole is not a characteristic of most nurses. Nurses like clear goals, something to steer towards, whether it’s gaining a patient’s trust by managing her pain, meeting discharge goals, or simply relieving a fever.
Measurable goals work in nursing. They’re admirable, and create safety.
* * *
Safety. What is safe?
As an oncology nurse navigator, and a cancer survivor, my patients and I grapple with this question daily: How to balance cancer prevention (safety) with an enjoyable and fulfilling life?
If you believe the answer is easily found in NCCN guidelines, and AJCC recommendations, you are most likely not a cancer survivor. Being a cancer survivor is “going down the rabbit hole.”
* * *
Being an artist and writer demands a willingness to go down the rabbit hole; a comfort level with uncertainty.
The challenge of life is learning to live somewhere on the continuum between safety, and recklessness.
Hank Stamper, the burly central character in Ken Kesey’s epic novel, Sometimes a Great Notion, about Oregon’s logging industry, argues towards recklessness:
“Hank would have been hard put to supply a reason himself, though he knew it to be true that Lee’s presence at the Snag tonight was important to him…maybe because the kid needed to see first-hand what kind of world was going on around his head all the time without him ever seeing it, the real world with real hassles, not his fairy book world of his that him and his kind’d made up to scare theirselfs with.”
* * *
Progress begins by asking questions.
What is safe? What is reckless? Should a predictable outcome dictate the beginning of a new enterprise?
An explorer would answer, “No.”
Alice returned from Wonderland, having viewed strange, new perspectives, and with a bunch of great puns. I assume she counted it a good experience, because she went back for a second trip Through the Looking Glass.
Here’s to going down the rabbit hole, and leaving 2017 behind.
Are nurses are the worse patients?
Upon completion of treatment for breast cancer, my surgeon remarked, “You got through treatment really well. In the beginning, I didn’t think you would.”
The comment struck me as odd, but I was curious. “Is this because I cried when you diagnosed me?”
Thoughtfully, I replied, “I cried because I understood the diagnosis. I understood it would change my life.”
In return I received a patient smile.
The first plastic surgeon I chose was forthright in his opinion of me as a patient, however, “You nurses are the worse patients.”
I asked, “Are we your worse patients, or your most educated ones?”
He promptly discharged me from his care.
* * *
I received excellent treatment for breast cancer. My survival and good health are proof. But there were gaps in the emotional support I received.
It’s been nearly two decades since I had breast cancer, and all those years I accepted the label of being “a bad patient;” the one that asked questions, the one needing proof the medical recommendations were best practice.
Then I became an oncology nurse navigator, with patients who are nurses. They have taught me I was not a bad patient, just a nurse-patient, set apart from non-nurse patients. And there are subsets of nurse-patients I help: those bringing an oncology background to their diagnosis, and those who don’t.
Nurses assume accountability for their care
Nurse-patients with oncology backgrounds manage their cancer diagnosis differently than their colleagues without. I suspect this is because they bring their own toolbox: They work with oncology surgeons, medical oncologists, and radiation oncologists. They personally know and handpick their treatment team. They’re still scared, but the support they seek is more pragmatic: how-to’s for managing treatment, work, home, and family life.
Nurses without an oncology background wonder if we are referred to top-notch practitioners, and receiving state-of-the art options, contributing more stress to our cancer diagnosis. We tend to get second, and sometimes third opinions about treatment recommendations. We are more likely to travel to nearby cities (and sometimes other states) with larger, nationally recognized cancer programs for consultations. We may delay starting treatment to fit in the extra consults. Our family and friends may not understand why we won’t simply “do what the doctor says.”
Here’s my unproven hypothesis explaining why this happens:
The Hot Seat: Nurses are compelled to advocate for themselves
Nurses, in our role of patient advocate, are educated to question doctors. We are accountable for catching, and preventing mistakes.
In my nursing education, this training happened early in the morning before our clinical days, in a potentially brutal ritual dubbed, “The Hot Seat.”
In “The Hot Seat” one by one, nursing students gave report on the patient (s) they were assigned that day: diagnosis, age, treatment plan, and goals for outcome. Our instructor cross-examined each student about everything: medication indications, dosage, side effects, and lab values to monitor. She inquired about imaging, and anticipated needs the patient may have at discharge. The more questions a student answered correctly, the more difficult the questions became. The fewer answers a student mustered, the hotter the seat became.
Nurses know unasked questions lead to harm
In The Hot Seat we learned critical thinking means always ask the next question. It’s the question you forgot to ask that leads to harm.
Nurses know the importance of asking questions. When we seek treatment outside of our specialty areas from doctors we do not know, we manage the stress by asking, “Why?”
My understanding of this means that nurses are some of my favorite patients. I remember what I needed to know to ease my stress during cancer treatment, and I offer it to my nurse-patients. Once they understand how oncology treatment works, they often become so independent in caring for themselves I rarely hear from them.
And I’ve certainly never discharged one from care.
My adult life I’ve had an unreasonable fear of being without a book to read. The anxiety is triggered when I travel, particularly by air. I trace its beginning to childhood when, on a family vacation to visit my grandparents in Italy, our plane was delayed in Germany for hours due to bad weather. Eventually, all passengers were shuttled by bus from Frankfurt to an airport in Stuttgart, continuing our flight to Rome.
I was in the fifth grade, stranded in a foreign airport with nothing to occupy me for twelve hours. My personal Hell was exceeded only by my parents’: they had to manage my boredom along with my six year-old brother’s, and toddler sister’s, also stranded. Fun times.
From then on, I travel with whatever book I’m reading, and if nearing its end, at least one other book, or more, depending on the planned length of stay. I know books are sold at airports, but I’m unwilling to take a chance on their selection. Problematically, my books take up space, and add weight to my luggage, interfering with my desire to travel light.
The invention of digital readers changed this. I live near one of the best independently owned book stores in America, and I apologize to all small, independent book store owners, but the ability to download books to a slim, lightweight device, and buy more books from virtually anywhere I travel was a game-changer, until last year.
Last year, the hospital where I work installed a Tiny Lending Library in its Healing Garden.
In case you’re unfamiliar with Tiny Lending Libraries, they’re a thing, with their own organization, and website. The movement began when people built cases, or sometimes simply placed boxes filled with books in their neighborhoods, inviting their neighbors to “take a book, and leave one behind.”
Besides the satisfaction derived from the printed page of a book, the experience of handling a used book left by someone wanting to share it provides a connection to the neighborhood, and the people who live there.
At work, I stop to see what’s on the shelves in the Tiny Lending Library if it’s not already being examined by staff or neighbors. The selection changes often. So far, I’ve borrowed six books, and left twice as many.
Once again, there’s a stack of unread books on my nightstand. I carry the one I’m reading with me to work, in case I have time on my lunch break to read a page or two. Eventually, it will take its place in the Tiny Lending Library.
I wonder how many of the books from the Tiny Lending Library make their way into hospital rooms, carried there by family or friends visiting a patient who is stranded by illness or injury, and worried about not having enough books to read?
It was several more days later before I ripped out the knitted sleeve I wrote of in my last post. I blame part of my reluctance on nursing process: Nurses are trained (to the point of reflex) when confronted with a problem or undesirable outcome to devise further interventions to create the desired outcome. Likewise, I attempted to apply nursing process to the problem of the knitting mistake.
I measured the sleeves of my favorite sweaters, discovering I habitually wear sleeves an inch or so longer than the pattern I’m using prescribes. Then I did some math, and calculated I could still make all the required increase stitches, if I were willing to accept a longer sleeve, but it would be a very close call between longer and too long. As an artist, and nurse, I felt compelled to take the challenge. Artists like to work with process too.
The hard part about nursing process, however, is knowing when to call it quits: How far backwards is one willing to bend to make something work? This can also apply to dysfunctional relationships or work environments. Carrying out interventions beyond the limits of healthy boundaries quickly becomes denial and co-dependence.
In the end, I conceded the sleeve was too long. I ripped out every stitch, turning my head away so I didn’t have to look, the way a patient undergoing a procedure with only local anesthetic does while the doctor takes a scalpel to their skin.
The deed is done. There’s no more anxiety about the outcome. I did what I had to do.
Nearly a year ago, I wrote a post about mindfulness and found time for creativity, in which I described how I used downtime spent in waiting rooms to draw, or more accurately, for advanced doodling.
The practice continues. This year, I purchased an inexpensive set of crayons, which I keep in a desk drawer. During my lunch break, I take a minute or two to add a splash of color to the ballpoint pen ink drawings. None took longer than 15 minutes to sketch, usually much less.
These rough sketches don’t take the place of painting in my studio, but, there’s a certain satisfaction that comes with adapting to challenges of managing time, learning to juggle purpose and passion. Nursing provides purpose rooted in service, and passion (or a reasonable facsimile of art) blossoms from its branches. Like spring flowers following a severe winter, it will not be denied.
First of all, I apologize to my friends and family on Facebook for the uncharacteristic political updates. Thank you to those who continue to follow me, whether or not we share viewpoints.
Since I began publishing JParadisiRN blog, I strive to maintain a balanced voice. Drama is not my thing, not as a nurse, not as a blogger (with the exception of The Adventures of Nurse Niki). Before hitting the “publish” button, I use my So What? filter, as in “Why did I write this, and so what?” It is my practice to write to the So What?
At least part of this instinct as a writer is traceable to my former role as a pediatric intensive care nurse, where I learned to report my concerns about a patient in concise, direction-oriented sound bites, in the middle of the night, by phone, to a doctor I’d just woken. For instance, if I assessed fluid overload, and suspected the patient needed a dose of furosemide, I presented the numerical values of fluid intake, urine output, central venous pressure, blood pressure, heart rate, etc, sometimes finishing the report with, “Would you like to give an extra dose of Lasix?” Most often the answer was, “Yes,” and I received an order for the desired dose before the doctor went back to sleep.
“So what, all nurses do this to some degree,” a reader might respond. They are right.
However, there’s another kind of nurse-call to a physician. It’s born of anxiety, a feeling that something isn’t right; that an otherwise stable-looking patient is on the verge of downward spiral. Their vital signs are within accepted limits, the lab values unchanged. But, standing at the bedside, “eyeballing” the patient, a subtle change is noted: they’re just a little dusky, a touch mottled. Sometimes those are the only signs warning a perceptive nurse of her patient’s declining status. It’s intuitive: The heart monitor still beats a normal sinus etching across its screen. The numerical values of pulse, blood pressure, and respirations remain unchanged. You keep a watchful eye on your patient, perhaps pulling a bag of normal saline, and a bottle of albumin to keep at the bedside, just in case.
As I grew into my PICU role, I learned to trust this intuition, my nurse’s gut. It saved more than a few lives. I joined the ranks of my more experienced colleagues, nurses who, when they call a doctor and say, “You need to get in here now,” the doctor does just that. He or she can’t explain our intuition either, but once they know a nurse has it, they listen, regardless of what the numbers say.
Here’s what: My nursing intuition is going berzerk in the current political climate. I can’t shake this feeling of impending doom. I am not an anxious person by nature; it’s my training to maintain order and calm. But I can’t shake this feeling: Where there’s smoke, there’s fire.
My friend who teaches Pilates and mindfulness was approached by one of her students after class. The student said, “I really appreciated your words of mindfulness, especially the part about, “Letting go of your assh*les.”
My friend, who I’ve never heard use that particular word in causal conversation, much less during a meditation, was taken aback. She could not recall saying it. She asked the student, “What did I say?”
She repeated herself, “I really appreciated you saying, ‘Let go of your hassles.”
Hassles. Ah yes, that makes much more sense. “Let go of your hassles.”
Since my friend told me the story, I’ve considered the hassles I want to let go of in the New Year 2017.
The usual suspects come readily to mind: Rude comments from others, drivers who take my pedestrian safety into their own hands by running stop signs, miscommunications of various species, the neighbor who parties and plays loud music until 4 am on a Monday morning when I have to go to work. I considered forgoing Twitter to avoid finding out US international policy changes before I’ve had coffee in the morning, but those tweets pop-up in the national news and Facebook immediately, so there’s no point.
While reflecting on hassles, it occurred to me that letting go of mine isn’t enough. It’s a principle of universal attraction that like attracts like. In other words, we attract to ourselves the energy we send out into the world. Simply put, the only way to let go of the hassles, is don’t be a hassle.
To not be a hassle requires mindfulness. It requires choosing to respond to hassles (especially those manifesting in the form of other people) with care and thoughtfulness. Letting go of hassles requires empathy and compassion. It requires restraining yourself from placing a wireless speaker against the wall between you and your neighbor’s home, and turning up teeny-bopper heart-throb boy band music really loud at 6 am on a Monday morning when you get up to go to work, with the intent of preventing your hung over neighbor from getting to sleep after partying all night, which kept you up when you had to go to work the next morning.
Letting go of the hassles requires not being a hassle.
Letting go of the hassles is an ongoing job, a moment by moment, day by day thing. It requires renewing the commitment to doing what’s right everyday.
It takes practice. I don’t expect to get it right every time.
“But I’m tryin’ real hard to be the Shepherd, Ringo. I’m tryin’.”