I remember sitting in the first class of the first course in Nursing School…It was taught by an imposing woman who to this day makes me just a little bit nervous when I see her. The first assignment sounded simple. Write a definition of nursing. I shrugged…thinking ”how hard can this be?” Let’s just say it was probably the longest time I ever stared at a blank piece of notebook paper in my entire 40 years of life. After about an hour I realized that I had no idea what nursing was. I spent the rest of the time looking up definitions and concocting a statement that she really liked, but did not show it outwardly past the mark she put on my paper. I was happy to have that good grade on my homework, however I knew I was in trouble because I still really had no idea what nursing really was. I certainly had no idea what nursing was going to end up meaning for me. There was a split second where I nearly turned tail and ran, this would not be a surprise to many, but that one little bit of self rose up and kept me on the course laid out before me.
I did a lot of challenging and difficult things and learned a lot of skills over the next year, none of which brought me any closer to really knowing the answer. I knew what dressings were, I knew what tube feeds and IV lines were, I knew what catheters and rectal bags and enemas were. I transfused blood and I assisted new babies into the world. I knew how to write great care plans, how to document in a chart and I knew how to talk to physicians. What I did not know was, my definition of nursing. I just was not feeling it. I do remember fretting about this with some instructors who had a reputation for being a bit more kind and indulgent than the first. One in particular told me that what I was feeling was not uncommon, and that sooner or later I would get my hands on something that would change everything for me and make the definition of nursing a reality for me. I hoped it would happen sooner or later because I found it hard to have a heart for something that I could not define or relate to.
On September 11, 2001 I got up early just like any other clinical day, and drove across Fairfax County, VA into Arlington on Route 50. I was listening to the radio and not paying attention. It was 8:45 am and I was late. I also missed my turn for Columbia Pike. I ended up turning around just in front of the parking lot for the Pentagon, and arrived at the clinic I was working in just minutes later. It was a clinic set up for refugees. Out of the corner of my eye I saw two kids sitting in the same wheelchair together. I remember shrugging thinking I wanted to get out of seeing patients that day. It was minutes later when all hell broke loose in the world. I had taken a quick walk up to 7-11 to buy soft drinks for a few of us still in shock over what I was hearing on the radio about the collapse of the World Trade Center buildings. I was standing outside avoiding the opportunity to see the two kids in the wheelchair when the jet that crashed into the Pentagon that morning came screaming down through the sky just over my head! What I will never forget was the look of a jet from the underside, heading at top speed for earth with no landing gear down. It was no more than some seconds after the aircraft disappeared behind the tree line that I heard the muffled impact and saw the black smoke pouring up into the sky. Seconds later the sirens were blaring and we were all instructed to close the clinic and evacuate.
I was running for what could have meant my life and I remember feeling relieved that I did not have to see the two kids in the wheelchair. Looking back that fear makes me shake my own head, but that is because I know myself now. I went home and waited with the rest of the world to see what had just happened to our country. I went back to school two days later and was called into the assistant dean’s office. She told me that someone needed to go back down to ground zero and assist the physician for two school physicals. She said that she did not feel right asking any of the other students to go back down there so soon. I remember looking at her while she told me they were the two disabled kids in the shared wheelchair. I am positive I made a face. I went anyway though. It changed my life forever.
She was a 14 year old Syrian girl, extremely small for her age, yet strikingly beautiful. She lay quietly on the exam table where her father had gently laid her. I have the privilege of also being a Syrian girl so maybe that is why once I was closer to her I felt a sort of familiarity with her. I assisted the physician as the physical was performed and she and I discussed her cervical spinal cord injury. I was studying spinal cord injury in the neuroscience course at school but this was the first time I had ever encountered a person who actually had one. I was fascinated by the way she managed to move, and how she managed to be expressive when not moving. Her father explained the cause of her injury through an interpreter. It was horrific. It happened in Iraq. The whole event took about 15 minutes and after she was safely back in her chair with her brother, who was also disabled, her father asked me in very broken English if there was a doctor in the United States that could help his daughter walk again. I never felt so helpless in all my life. I did not know any kind of answer to give him except some gibberish about finding someone in the Children’s Hospital network. Her father was very appreciative for our time and was then on his way with his children. I drove home asking myself the same question I did after every clinical experience. “What is the definition of Nursing?” I was halfway through my schooling and I still felt like I had no idea, and I felt like I let that father down. I did know one thing. I was going to go home, and figure out how to find a better answer.
When I got home that afternoon, I was hanging out with my next door neighbor, Ruthe. Ruthe handed me a newsletter and said it was written by a friend of her brother’s from high school named Steve and she thought I might find it interesting. He had a horrible accident in a swimming pool and broke his neck. The newsletter was about his experiences with his spinal cord injury. The timing could not have been better. I noted that he wrote about his feelings about American nurses, and called them “insensitive bitches”. Of course, I took issue with his generalization. Of course, I opted to send the total stranger an e-mail. That e-mail led to more e-mails, and over time I found I had made a friend in Steve Crowder, aka Nick Danger. I was blown away by the magnitude of troubles that are created by spinal cord injury. I really had no idea what people had to go through every day with paralysis. I was immediately interested in the acute injury, the nursing care, and the treatment algorithms. I had so many questions that Steve pointed me in the direction of Paul, another person with a spinal cord injury in California. For a variety of reasons I can say that, Paul Nussbaum had a hand in saving my life. I challenged Paul to remember his prior profession in counseling, because at that time it also came out that I was hurting, from events in my personal life. I found him kind, gentle and reasonable to talk to. He taught me about what it was like to live with a chronic spinal cord injury. He taught me more than I could ever thank him for. It was Paul who told me about Care Cure and Dr. Wise Young.
It was Paul who led me to Debbie Kelsoe, and another great California paralyzed man who goes by the screen name, vgrafen. When I looked up the first posting written by vgrafen, he characterized American nurses as, you guessed it! “Insensitive bitches.”
I had no idea what clicking on the link for Care Cure was going to mean for my life. I had no idea that by reading the words written in the forums there, and the networking that came as a result of those postings, that I would finally find the answer to the burning question, “what is the definition of nursing?” The new question became, “could I live alongside the answer?”