lemon-msWhen we are injured or develop chronic pain that is disabling there is a tendency to feel life is over; that our dreams for the future are destroyed. But in looking back over my life what I found was something quite different.

When I was in 5th grade (1958) I had surgery to remove a bone tumor from my hand and a supposed sebaceous cyst from the top of my head.  I fell in love with the wonderful nurse who took care of me during my week long stay in the hospital.  I decided then and there I was going to be a nurse when I grew up.  Soon after this I began to have severe headaches that would come on suddenly, lasting hours.  Unable to find a cause my parents were told I was looking for attention (after all I had 10 siblings) and it was all in my head.

Fast forward to 1965.  Finally a new physician saw me during one of my headache episodes and within one week I was scheduled for a craniotomy to remove a congenital meningocele and AV malformation. (In simpler terms, I was born with a defect in my skull and part of the lining of the brain protruded from this defect and was filled with cerebral spinal fluid). The first surgery in 1958 had literally removed the safety valve for my brain; it was not a superficial sebaceous cyst after all.  I was hospitalized for over a month because they could not close the defect in the scalp and skull that was created during the surgery and it had to fill in slowly over time.  I again fell in love with the nurses who took care of me and was determined more than ever to become a nurse.  In 1967, I enrolled in the brand new nursing program at the community college in my home town and successfully graduated in 1969 and passed my licensing board examination 3 months later.

I had reached my goal. I was a registered nurse!

December 27, 1970 is the day my life went upside down and sideways. I was home on Christmas break from college.  I had been attending Syracuse University to work on my Bachelor’s degree in Nursing.  That morning as I came downstairs to breakfast I slipped and fell down a flight of stairs fracturing 3 thoracic vertebrae (parts of the bony spine in the mid-back).  As I lay flat in bed in a back brace, I thought my [short] nursing career was over.  Determined to prove otherwise, while I was in the midst of a LONG recovery in order to heal, I decided to find a way to remain a nurse.  I could not lift patients any more (or anything too heavy for that matter) and I had a constant ache in my back.

I tried private duty nursing for a few months, worked on a traveling blood mobile for the American Red Cross for six months and worked as a relief night charge nurse for six months–none of them turned on my passion for nursing. I even joined the Jesuit Volunteer Corps in 1971 (like the Peace Corps, only bigger and better) out of desperation and a need to find passion in life again. It was in the volunteer corps where I discovered Emergency Nursing and that experience became my saving grace.

First, I had a battle to face. Convince nursing administration to allow me to work as a nurse following my injury.  After all, I was considered a walking liability. With perseverance, I was able to show them I could do the job and do it well.

I loved ER nursing; it ignited the passion which I felt for nursing. In 1979, I completed the requirements for my nurse practitioner certification in ER Nursing. Eventually this led me to palliative care and hospice care and then finally to pain management nursing. (Another story for another day)  I completed my Masters Degree in nursing with a specialty in Pain and Palliative care in 1988 and have since created nursing positions in Pain and Palliative Care where none existed at the time.

You see, I identified a need in an underserved population and found a way to fill that need.  I could closely identify with these patients as I was one of them. I eventually started my own consulting business in 2005 and contracted with the State of WA to provide pain education and interventions to their COPES/ Medicaid clients with chronic pain.  In 1999, I was offered a position on the faculty of Washington State University College of Nursing.  I am a regular guest lecturer on pain and complimentary therapies at the medical school (Pacific Northwest University and Osteopathic Medical School). I have lectured in almost all 50 states and internationally as well.

Yes, I still live with pain 24/7. However, if it were not for that back injury back in 1970, I would probably never have looked for other ways to do the nursing I love.  My pain experience has been an unexpected gift.  To some, my life story could be seen as filled with lemons. Those lemons have been turned into lemonade—refreshingly sweet and sour.

How about you? Have you turned your [pain] lemons into lemonade? I would love to hear your story, too.

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