2019: Days of Miracle and Wonder

These are the days of miracle and wonder 

-Paul Simon

 

 New Year’s Eve 2018 marked the twentieth anniversary of discovering a lump in my breast that proved to be cancer. So began the days of miracle and wonder that shaped the next year and a half of my life, transforming it in ways I could not have imagined at the time.

The Star collage by Julianna Paradisi 2018

2019 marks the ten year anniversary of publishing my first short stories in an anthology, followed by creating and writing this blog, JParadisiRN.

2019 follows a year of internal transformation. Thankfully, none are as dramatic or terrifying as a cancer diagnosis, surgery, and losing my hair, but they are significant enough to have opened my senses to new perceptions and possibilities as I completed the last year of a twenty-year cycle of personal and professional growth.

A former pediatric intensive nurse who’s transitioned into adult oncology nursing, I’m humbled by my survival. I know all too well some people are born to live only a few hours, days or a handful of years, and that cancer kills without remorse or discrimination the young, the bright, the kind. Others go on to live with chronic illness or metastatic disease. To survive an average lifetime is a miracle and wonder. It comes with a burden, or more rightly, responsibility.

I’ve written before I don’t believe in living a balanced life if balance is defined as To keep or put (something) in a steady position so that it does not fall. I still believe this. However, perceptions gained in 2018 have led me to expand my definition of balance to something more like a glass of world-class Pinot Noir: a thoughtfully crafted, satisfying blend of many parts chosen to complement the whole, and not elements distributed equally as though they are the wedges of a pie.

I don’t have a complete grasp of the concept yet, but I’m working on it.

At the end of cancer treatment, my transformation included selling or giving away much of what I owned, including my car. I sold my house and moved to Portland. I changed jobs. I took art school classes.

A couple of years later, I married my husband David.

I am very happy and comfortable in the life I’ve built during the past twenty years since finding the lump. Cancer turned into a catalyst for extraordinary personal growth. In 2018 it became clear to me that it is time to build on the foundation of that growth, moving beyond my comfort zone into whatever is next in my quest for growth and individuation. This time, the transformation is more of an internal thing, although there’s already been a couple of external changes reflecting the internal ones.

This blog post reflects an internal change too. I’ve written before that I write “To the So-What?” meaning in the past I began a post with a clear idea of how I would end it, and why I wrote it in the first place. Now I’m not sure I still believe the So-What is So Important. I am becoming enamored of process without attachment to outcome.

Let me repeat that last sentence: I am becoming enamored of process without attachment to outcome.

If you are a nurse reading this, you have an inkling of the size the internal changes. After all, what are nurses or health care providers without focus on outcomes?

Artists.

The Two Hands of Mindfulness

The little dish of crystals I keep on my desk. I made the little dish from clay. Photo: jparadisi 2018

Late on a Friday afternoon I sat on the floor of a shared office space in semi-lotus position, dismantling the fax machine to clear a paper jam. I needed to fax a copy of one more cancer survivorship care plan to a primary care physician’s office to meet my weekly quota before going home. If you work for an accredited cancer institute, and particularly if you’re an oncology nurse navigator like me, the phrase “survivorship care plan” is enough to cause heart palpitations, and maybe make your palms sweat. If the phrase doesn’t hold meaning for you, count your blessings.

Sitting before the fax machine in semi-lotus position, trying very hard not to break its plastic drawer while reaching for the piece of paper stuck in its maw, I considered the difficulty of practicing mindfulness in the controlled chaos that is health care. At that moment, I felt more akin to George’s father on Seinfeld, Frank Constanza, screaming “Serenity now!” than to the Dali Llama.

How is it I have the nursing skills to manage a patient’s airway on a ventilator, but am defeated by a piece of office equipment?

The stress is worse for nurses working at the bedside: For instance, how many times does the ED call to admit a patient to a nursing unit only to be told the unit doesn’t have a bed? I don’t mean a room, I mean literally, a physical bed? The admission is delayed while some poor night shift nurse traipse through hallways into the bowels of the hospital in search of a bed.

There are medication shortages to contend with, including the lowly bag of saline, diphenhydramine, and flu shots. These scenarios are not new to nurses. They are common occurrences we problem solve during the course of a shift, while managing the health and safety of our patients, documenting for compliance standards, and meeting accreditation mandates such as survivorship care plans.

Some days I’m more successful maintaining mindfulness at work than other days.  That’s why mindfulness is a practice. Practicing mindfulness requires compassion not only for others, but for ourselves. In fact, it’s my opinion that a lack of self-compassion and self-care contributes to a general lack of compassion towards others, fueling a hostile work environment. I keep a small dish of crystals on my desk at work to remind myself to stay in the moment.

As I sat on the floor in front of the fax machine, late on that Friday afternoon, a coworker returned to our office. She asked what I was doing, and I vented my frustration. She got down on her knees, and took a turn at dismantling the fax machine to get it working. She was successful. I faxed the care plan to the physician’s office, meeting my quota for the week. I got out on time to take my barre class, where we practice breathing and mindfulness.

Gratitude and compassion are the two hands of mindfulness.

 

 

A Nurse’s Sketch Book

 

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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.

 

money-bagIn my latest post (and illustration) for Off the Charts, the blog of the American Journal of Nursing, I share clinical observations about oncology care, before and after the ACA was signed into effect.

The Stars of Our Lives

Mixed Media on Paper 2016 by Julianna Paradisi

The air temperature was below freezing, and because of all of the rain earlier in the week, the streets were frozen. Lots of car accidents were reported on the roads.

Because I walked to work I didn’t think too much about it, but as I progressed closer to the hospital the sidewalks, and particularly the asphalt streets became more slick with ice. I was wearing the wrong sort of boots and had to tread carefully to avoid slipping and falling.

Most interesting about the experience was that when I came to an intersection I waited to let the cars go first:

1. Because I had to walk gingerly, and slowly, and

2. Because the cars could slide too, and I didn’t want to be struck if they did.

Surprisingly, some drivers were annoyed when I refused to go first after they waved me on. One was so upset he shouted, “I was just trying to be polite to you!” from his vehicle as he passed. Intending to be thoughtful I had affronted him by not accepting his gesture of kindness, as though we were characters in an O. Henry story.

It made me think about how we are the stars of our own lives, and as such, often interpret the actions and motives of others through the lens of their effect on us. The driver didn’t understand I was being considerate too (and concerned for my safety). It didn’t occur to him that the road was as icy and slick for pedestrians as it was for those behind the wheel of a car.

I don’t know who originated it, but before reacting to someone’s words or actions it’s helpful to remember the meme, “People are not against you, they are for themselves.” I know I do it too, judge others’ actions by the effect they have on me. I hope I can become more mindful of doing it, and less self-focused.

 

Nurses Make Birthdays, One Year at a Time

by jparadisi

by jparadisi

Part of our institution’s medication administration policy is asking patients to state their name and birth date, scrutinizing the information against the medication label. Patients of a certain age, more women than men, customarily wince while saying the year in which they were born. Often they say, “I’m getting so old.”

Perhaps it’s none of my business to respond, but as a cancer survivor and an oncology nurse, I can’t seem to help it. This reply escapes my mouth with hardly a thought in between: “That’s what we do here. We help you grow old, one birthday at a time. That’s why you and I are here.”

It always gets a laugh, and more often than not a, “Well, I suppose you’re right. That is what we’re doing here, isn’t it?”

Like many things in life, the ability to enjoy growing old is a matter of perspective.

It’s a funny world we live in. People bemoan their birthdays and growing old; yet endure chemotherapy and procedures, fighting to add years to lives threatened by disease.

I don’t love the effects of aging on my body. I color my hair to hide the gray. I exercise and eat right, and avoid over indulging in things that destroy a body’s ability to maintain its health. But these things enhance life, they do not prevent the inevitable. I know my days are limited. I know some day I will cease to exist in the manner I do now.

You may feel depressed by reading this post, but I say to you, knowing that life is finite is the most freeing of all thoughts. It bestows the gift of living everyday to the fullest, to make choices honoring integrity, and loving relationships. Life is too short to dwell in unhappiness. This is the least that nurses can do to honor the memory of the patients we have known and lost: live life as if each day were the last.

And, yes, I will take another slice of that birthday cake.

New Post: The Art of Nursing

May is all warm and fuzzy with Nurse’s Week. May renews love for what my mentor once dubbed “The noblest of professions.” May also marks the birthday of Florence Nightingale, the founder of modern nursing. I am a fan of Nightingale, her work, her integrity, and her devotion to nursing’s science.

 

The Art of Nursing by jparadisi

The Art of Nursing by jparadisi

So, please, don’t misunderstand when I say there is a quote by Nightingale from 1868 in which I find the tiniest flaw:

 Nursing is an art; and if it is to be made an art, requires as exclusive a devotion, as hard a preparation, as any painter’s or sculptor’s work; for what is the having to do with dead canvas or cold marble compared with having to do with the living body, the temple of God’s Spirit? Nursing is one of the fine arts; I had almost said, the finest of the fine arts.”

The troublesome part for me is describing “canvas or cold marble” as “dead.” As an artist, I tell you that there is no such thing as a dead canvas or sculptor’s stone. Yes, both are inanimate objects — no disagreement there. But anyone putting brush to canvas or chisel to stone knows that an interaction occurs between the artist and the medium. Writers know that a blank page stares back in judgmental and deafening silence. Art is a result of the interaction between the medium and the artist. As an art student, I once told an instructor, “I just want what I paint to look like what I see in my head.” Sympathetically, she replied, “That’s what all artists want. It never happens.”

Michelangelo said it best:

“Every block of stone has a statue inside it and it is the task of the sculptor to discover it.”

The personality of a canvas, stone, or blank page is manifested by its grain (tooth), flaws, and innate characteristics. Artists do not simply impose their will on canvas or stone. Art is the interaction between the artist and the medium.

So what does any of this have to do with nursing?

The art of nursing lies within a broader spectrum of skills than IV starts, and medication administration. It requires a nurse to discover the unique characteristics of each patient asking for help. Nurses chisel away at fear, pain, and grief to reveal a patient’s inner strengths and natural resiliency. We hold up a mirror, so our patients can see the beauty of the human spirit that we uncover.

Like canvas or stone, some patients are resistant to brush or chisel. Through devotion to our craft, we adapt our nursing skills to the realities of their character. Artists and nurses know a vision cannot be impressed upon a unreceptive surface, so we do what we can, knowing the result may fall short of our vision.

The nurse’s art, much like that of an artist or sculptor, utilizes the naturally occurring strengths and flaws in patients to create beauty from potential. The art exists within this interaction.

Happy Nurses Week!

The Nursing Dilemma of Medical Marijuana

Medical marijuana is legal in Oregon, where I practice. In one sense, this seems to be an enlightened act of legislation for patients who cannot tolerate conventional medications or simply prefer an herbal approach to managing pain and/or nausea. Its use is particularly prevalent in among oncology patients, and those with chronic pain.

Still, it’s a nursing conundrum. The issue is that marijuana remains illegal at the federal level. Because of this, many hospitals are reluctant to allow prescription marijuana on their campuses. Although a 2009 Justice Department memo recommends that drug enforcement agents focus their investigations away from “clear and unambiguous” use of prescription marijuana, it also says users claiming legal use but not adhering to regulations may be prosecuted.

In light of this, hospitals take the conservative approach: Attending licensed medical practitioners are prevented from prescribing medical marijuana for hospitalized patients, and create policies prohibiting the use of medical marijuana on their campuses.

For pharmacists and nurses the problem is this:

  • Pharmacists can only dispense medications prescribed by licensed medical practitioners. The federal government classifies marijuana as a Schedule I drug, which means licensed medical practitioners cannot prescribe it.
  • Nurses administer medications only with an order obtained from licensed medical practitioners.

Nurses may have run-ins with patients and caregivers unfamiliar with this policy, and a patient’s home medication routine may be disrupted.

Though it does not happen often, I had the experience of treating a chemotherapy patient expecting to smoke marijuana between infusions to control nausea and vomiting. Initially caught off guard, I struggled to find a way to manage the situation.

The campus did not permit smoking, tobacco or otherwise. When I reviewed the hospital policy, it confirmed that the medical marijuana was not an exception. I explained this to the patient, who was understanding, but skeptical.

Reviewing the premedication orders, the oncologist had done a good job of covering nausea and vomiting with conventional medications. I asked the patient to give it a try. Always having a plan B, I promised that if the medications didn’t work, I’d call the oncologist and, if necessary, the department manager.

Fortunately, the conventional medications worked. The patient enjoyed a hearty lunch and held it down. For the future, I recommended the patient smoke marijuana at home before appointments, and afterwards if indicated.

Several states have enacted medical marijuana laws. Do you work in one of them? How does this affect your nursing practice?

 

Managing The Moderately Unstable Patient: The Challenge of Ambulatory Care Nursing

When a nurse educator makes the bold statement, “The moderately unstable patient is at the highest risk,” I’m interested in knowing why. I’ve thought about this statement ever since.

Wild Card by jparadisi

Wild Card by jparadisi

She explained that the task-oriented nature of ambulatory care units (ACU) is a contributing factor. While patients in the ACU are assessed by their physician or nurse practitioner for treatment readiness, and again assessed by the infusion RN during treatment, the primary goal of these appointments for patients and providers is to administer treatment, complete the appointment, and, for the providers, to move on to the next patient. The ACU patient then goes home to fend for his or herself until the next appointment.

If you spend only a small length of time at the triage nurse’s desk answering phones, the high risks faced by these moderately unstable patients are clear:

Pain
Chemotherapy-induced nausea and vomiting (CINV)
Blood clots
Febrile neutropenia
Depression
Herpes zoster shingles
Malnutrition
This list is not comprehensive. Individual risk factors such as living alone or comorbidities also play a role in overall risk factors.

Some risk factors that might occur during the ACU appointment:

Patient falls
Adverse drug reactions
Syncope
Patient and nurse are unaware that patient is unexpectedly unfit to drive after the appointment
The above factors often occur because the nurse caring for a particular patient is unfamiliar with that patient’s baseline functioning. This puts first-time patients, and nurses new to an established patient, at an increased risk for an unfortunate event.

So, how can ACU nurses protect patients and their nursing license in this fast paced, and rapidly expanding nursing specialty?

First, stop calling your place of work a clinic. The ACU is a specialty care area requiring its own unique set of nursing skills, and should be recognized as such.

Maintain a high level of suspicion. Asking the right question is more important than having all the answers. What you don’t know will harm your patient. One of the most common examples is explaining to a patient how to care for their back pain, only to later discover that the pain is shingles, which were missed because no one asked to see the patient’s back. Other important questions are: “When did you take your (fill in the blank) medication last?” If they haven’t recently, ask, “Why?” because the answer may surprise you. Asking the right questions is an essential part of a solid assessment.

Continuing education is critical to quality patient care. While ACU nursing may seem less demanding than inpatient nursing, it requires the same level of skill and vigilance.

Nurses: Keeping Your New Job From Feeling Like The Titanic

Complaining about being overwhelmed by a job in this economy is a little like complaining about too much sunshine. It’s a complaint of the fortunate, particularly when the work involves caring for cancer patients: Certainly the grass is not greener on their side of the infusion chair.

by jparadisi

by jparadisi

Nevertheless, the reality for those of us fortunate enough to have jobs is that everyone works harder, for longer hours compared to when the economy was robust.

I’ve thought about this a lot during my job transition to a new employer. Learning new expectations is overwhelming for everyone involved, not only for my previous coworkers and myself, but for the new coworkers too. For instance, it takes a lot of trust to cosign chemotherapy administration with a nurse you’ve never met before. Both new and previous colleagues are confronted with this. Physicians I’ve never met have been welcoming, and willing to learn that I know what I’m doing. I am a new face for the patients too, earning their trust as well.

I’m relearning skills I’m already good at using new equipment. An example of this occurred when a new colleague asked me to start an IV. “I got this,” I thought, until opening the IV catheter package. In it, I found an over-the-needle system I’d never seen before. I asked my coworker how the safety gizmo worked, feeling a bit dull-witted. I practiced with it once on a tissue box, all the while thinking of that scene from the movie Titanic, where Jack makes Rose practice swinging the axe a couple of times before letting her take a swing at the handcuffs binding his wrists to a pole while the ocean water rapidly rises. Like Rose, I was successful on the first attempt. Whew!

For those of you making a job change in the clinical setting, here are some tips for managing new job-related stress:

  • Allow extra time. Something as simple as changing a PICC line dressing can take twice the expected time if you can’t find the special wrap the patient wants to secure his PICC in an unfamiliar storeroom.
  • Bring a water bottle, and keep hydrated. Have a packaged protein snack handy for low blood sugar.
  • Go to bed early. Stress often interrupts sleep in the form of processing thoughts during the night. Allow for extra rest.
  • Minimize outside obligations. Spend leisure time with your family or significant others. They benefit from your job, and will support you when the going is tough.
  • Remind yourself that you know how to be a nurse. You may not know where to find gauze or tape, but you know how to keep patients safe. Rely on those skills.

What other suggestions are helpful when starting a new job?