Being Sick Changes You
Being sick changes you.
For a host of different reasons, I’ve caught myself daydreaming recently–remembering moments in my pre-sick life where I felt normal. My sense of normal was pretty ridiculous. I used to travel a lot.
I’ve been white water rafting on the Nile River in Uganda.
I went “surfing” off the Pacific coast of rural Nicaragua.
Spent the night in the executive lounge in the Amsterdam airport.
Strolled the tea fields outside Nairobi, Kenya.
Went deep sea fishing in Aruba.
Napa Valley. Sedona. Chicago.
I did Las Vegas on halloween.
I moved to San Francisco for a few months with friends and came home with a rescue dog.
I dug a hole for a tree in Bolivia.
Got caught in a rip tide in Costa Rica and almost drowned.
Strolled through an abandoned Syrian bunker.
Did medical work in Nicaragua, Kenya, and Bolivia.
Bungee jumped over gator infested waters.
Been on safari in Africa.
Walked a first century staircase in Israel.
On top of traveling, I used to work in pretty intense acute care environments.
I treated a patient with full blown human rabies and became exposed myself.
I watched a mother pull out the IV access line of her sick daughter.
I held the hand of a 30-something woman with autoimmune disease whose heart and lungs had failed and whose options had run out and with a tear falling from her eye pleaded, “Don’t give up on me.”
I watched the same woman take her last breath as the machines were turned off a few days later.
A patient pleaded with me to write his story just hours before he was placed on a ventilator and then died a week later.
I’ve seen patients be brought back to life after dying.
I caught a baby as he was being born.
I restrained a patient who had attacked a fellow nurse in the middle of the night.
I’ve told a family that their loved one’s heart was no longer beating.
Body bags. CPR. Ran a code on a nurse who crashed while on shift.
Walked into patient rooms covered in blood with no patient in sight–on a couple different occasions.
Saw a patient with elephantiasis in the mountains in northern Nicaragua.
Held a softball sized tumor freshly removed from an abdomen in Kenya.
These experiences once defined me. I was fun. I was pretty much down for anything. I was quick on my feet. Never lost my cool. I was deliberate. Reliable. I could lay back and rock in a hammock ten minutes from the Costa Rican boarder and the next day translate for an American doctor telling a mother her son had signs of cancer. I used to go to the bar at 8am with my coworkers after working a crazy night shift. I used to be able to be in any country and feel comfortable. To my coworkers surprise, I used to be able to remain calm and collected when patients would lose lines for a drug with a 4 minute half life.
This was who I was. Now, I’m not quite sure.
I think about these experiences while I’m laying getting my infusions. In the bleak greyness of the hospital infusion center, I can close my eyes and remember what it felt like to swim in the ten, fifteen foot tall waves in Nicaragua. I remember the days that I was on the other side of the infusion–hooking my patients up to the same drug that I now need.
I wonder who I am now. My exciting life stopped in an instant over three years ago and now I’m reduced to doctor appointments, disability hearings, tests, infusions.
Susannah Cahalan, who suffered from a debilitating autoimmune condition, in her memoir, Brain on Fire, explains it so much better than I can:
“Now I think that this shame emerged out of the precarious balancing act between fear of loss and acceptance of loss. Yes, I could once again read and write and make to-do lists, but I had lost confidence and a sense of self. Who am I? Am I a person who cowers in fear at the back of a spin class, avoiding everyone’s gaze? This uncertainty about who I am, this confusion over where I truly was in the time line of my illness and recovery, was ultimately the deeper source of the shame. A part of my soul believed that I would never be myself, the carefree, confident Susannah, again.
‘How are you?’ people continued to ask me constantly.
How was I? I didn’t even know who ‘I’ was anymore.”
She writes, “Will I ever again regain that spark that defines who I am?”
I’m not the same person I was before and I won’t ever be again. Being sick changes you, and I’m not quite sure how it changed me yet–all I know is that it did.