Interviewing a Phoenix

Updated | Published

I am a mother to a special needs child, a wife to first responder and a critical care nurse. I work in a small community general medicine ICU and a large level 1 Trauma Center Emergency Room. Here is my story.

by ZenLover ZenLover, MSN, RN, NP

Specializes in FNP-BC / ICU. Has 8 years experience.

Critical Care Nurse: My Journey; My Life

Interviewing a Phoenix

My most recent experiences sound so much like what you have already heard. Being a critical care nurse in a pandemic has not been easy. But what is easy? What in life is ever easy? Falling down, but not getting back up. Failing to show up, but not the conversation as to why when you are confronted.  What starts out feeling easy rarely ends up that way, if you see your own story through. That is what I am doing now, seeing my story through and owning what I am.

I am a mother to a special needs child, a wife to first responder and a critical care nurse. I work in a small community general medicine ICU and a large level 1 Trauma Center Emergency Room. My story is not just about the pandemic. My story is about surviving trauma from an early age, navigating life with a broken foundation, being a woman in a misogynistic society, often lost in narratives and at the end of the day not just surviving but figuring out my place in helping you survive situations that seem impossible. Why? Because I was born for it, built for it and created into it.

My most recent poignant moment of the pandemic was taking care of a middle-aged man who looked a lot like my own husband. He was sick with COVID and this was far enough into the pandemic that I was experiencing emotional exhaustion. The respirator I had to wear was giving me panic attacks by the end of my shift. In the last few hours of my recent shifts during this time, each time I had to put the mask on and pull it off, I would just feel so incredibly irritated and angry. I didn’t recognize these as a panic attack at first. I had to describe it to someone else and they retorted “oh yeah, a panic attack”. Life is funny that way. Often when you are the one drowning you are the last one to realize it.

This gentleman I was caring for was on several drips, ventilated, heavily sedated, and had been on our unit for a few weeks. A lot of us caring for him would walk by his room with our heads down because as the days and hours ticked by, we felt he was less likely to ever come back to us. No one thought he would really make it out and if he did, he would most likely be in a vegetative state. I was in a dark and jaded place. I felt like death gently going through the motions of caring for him and patiently waiting for his body to finally say it couldn’t go on. I knew deep down that I should not be feeling this way and that I needed to dig deep to fight it off. On the one hand, it felt so right to give in to this peaceful feeling of letting go and letting nature take a celestial course, but on the other hand, I knew the family could not be there. They were depending on me to fight to the bitter end and if I did not do just that, I was betraying a trust and a need that they had in me that was and is sacred. Deep down I knew that the last thing to ever go should be hope and that hope should go with you to your own end. You don’t lose hope, no matter what. You hang on to it like it’s the only thing your soul will ever have left long after your bones have turned to dust.

On one particular day caring for him I had to schedule a zoom visit for his daughter. I was told she was 22 and wanted to speak to him. He was ventilated, sedated and being supported with bedside continuous dialysis which required me to be in the room every hour. Scheduling this visit would be easy, which hour do you want because I will obviously be available. I was hanging on to hope for this guy, but I was also semi-checked out emotionally. To protect myself and keep my head straight I had to check out. I had vital signs to constantly watch, drips titrating and the continuous dialysis to contend with. COVID makes your blood clot and he was doing a lot of that. If I didn’t watch the speed of the dialysis and configure the amount of fluid going in and out every hour correctly, he would clot faster, resulting in less treatment and possibly die faster. I had to be stone cold, concentrated and on point. You can’t cry every moment, the emotion can both inspire you and distract you. However, survival is name of the game for you and the patient so stay with me on that point.

The hour came for the zoom meeting and first, her mother came on and explained to me that the daughter has High Functioning Autism. I choked a little and I felt a crack develop in my emotional wall. My daughter, Marcella, has High Functioning Autism and she is only 10. All throughout this pandemic I have felt compelled to be there for my community, but at what cost? What if I make my children sick? What if I get sick and my children no longer have a mother? My son and daughter’s education is suffering and I am not there for them because I am needed where? Do we have an IEP meeting this month or ever again?  My husband has been dealing with riots and my family receiving death threats because of what he does for a living. I have spent months fighting for others’ lives and worried about my own and those closest to me…constantly. Being at work, staying busy, focusing on others…it has helped me survive. But suddenly now are my two worlds colliding?

Then his daughter came on the screen and I heard her voice as clear as a beautiful silvery bell. She immediately started to beg. “Please don’t leave me, daddy.” “You can’t leave me.” “I’ll take care of you.” “Come back home to me and I will hold you.” “I can take care of you daddy.” “I promise I can.” People with autism, when they are upset, will often speak repetitively. She could not stop begging and all I could do was picture my husband and child in this situation. It was surreal and mind blowing. I am not exaggerating when I say I dropped to my knees and begged God/Universe/Life to pick me back up. I had previously turned off my emotions so I could do my job and then in this moment of everything hitting home, I just had every emotion possible slam me in the gut. I managed to pick myself back up. That is what I do. That is what I have always done. There is no other way. There is no other choice. Move forward or don’t move at all. I took care of him and waged one of my biggest battles for him. A week or so later I was able to speak to him after he was removed off the ventilator, he was recovering well and I had the privilege of sending him out to rehab. He did survive. I don’t subscribe to a specific religion and I won’t put this experience in that kind of context. However, The God / Life Force of our Universe taught me a lesson both through this man and his daughter that I will carry with me forever and it will be my own personal turning point in having worked through this pandemic. It will be yet another medal I wear on my chest as a survivor of trauma.

I, myself, am currently experiencing a different journey than I feel most do or ever have.  All through the pandemic I worked in the ICU, provided coverage when needed in the ER and continue to work even now as needed. Through all of this, I also managed to graduate with my Masters in Nursing from the University of Virginia from the Family Nurse Practitioner program. As of July 2021, I am officially a Board-Certified Family Nurse Practitioner. I have moments when I am very proud and then I have moments when I feel like it is about as valuable as toilet paper in the current state of Healthcare. I am “just a nurse”. I will never be a doctor. I am told I should not pretend to be like one or have any ideas that I will ever know as much as one.   Right now, people argue that I am both overpaid and undervalued by almost all of leadership. None of my sacrifice, loyalty, efforts, or hard work to make myself the best possible healthcare provider means much of anything to anyone as my position becomes part of a political argument over money and power. I have, many times, meant the world to the patients I have touched and that is why I do what I do. Politics, money and power be damned because none of that ever inspired me or created me. 

I am a nurse because I aid people in navigating life’s most treacherous waters. I do this because I have spent my own life navigating the waters and I know how. Our healthcare system is imploding in areas and I am here to help people survive it. I can do that because I am the Queen of Dysfunction. A lot of nurses are. If you really get to know a nurse and ask them about their history of what led them to the bedside you would be surprised the number of people that have survived trauma and now are bent on helping you survive yours.

Right now, everyone questions me on why I think I can be a Nurse Practitioner. They tell me “You have no experience as a Nurse Practitioner”. They tell me how hard it will be to transition from being “just a nurse” to a Nurse Practitioner. They ask me “Why do you want to do it?” No one wants to really give me a chance. This is why I am struggling with seeing my story through now. I have heard “NO” so many times in my life it would make your head spin. My answer to “no” has always been a loud and proud response of who I am and where I come from.

I am a grown woman now, but I started out riding my tricycle in the middle of a Miami downtown expressway at 2 am with a dirty diaper because my mother was not able to pay attention due to drug addiction. It was the mid to late 70’s and the beginning of the cocaine scene. Before the age of 10 I was so neglected and left with so little oversite I was electrocuted, run over by a car, almost shot my own head off with a revolver left for me to find, lost more times than I can count, and beaten at the hands of those who were supposed to care for me. Both my parents gave me away when I was 3 years of age to a family member who quickly grew tired of me. 

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Did you know raising a traumatized child can be challenging? My father never believed he was MY father so he raised my sister, but gave me away to his sister and I became the family charity case. I was the lost daughter of a whore who was lucky to have a roof over her head and food on a table. I was told most of my grade school years that I was “retarded” and something was wrong with me. I grew up fast. I grew up strong and I grew up wild. The worst thing that ever happened to me though was being stranded in the desert with my father who was suffering from blackouts due to his alcoholism. He was working out in White Sands on the Stealth Bomber. When I finally made it out few believed me or my experience. I did everything all the after school T.V. programs said you were supposed to do. I told a trusted friend. I told a school guidance counselor. I told my church pastor.  In turn, I was told I was “histrionic”, “depressed”, “dramatic” and worst of all, just simply a liar. The few that did believe me responded with “it happens to a lot of women and if you are smart you will shut up about it because no one can help you and you are making yourself a target”. I heard stories from women about how grandpa, dad, brother, or cousin did this or that. At the end of the day, I had to figure my own way, the same as the women I came from. I almost failed out of school entirely and my high school guidance counselor told me I was not college material. I went to Summer school to get out early because I could no longer stand the environment. I was an outcast and lost. I would be lost in an emotional desert for a long time.

So that is where I began, but here I am now. An undergraduate nursing degree from Virginia Commonwealth University and a graduate degree from the University of Virginia both with honors and a boatload of student loans. I received a little scholarship money and people obviously gave me chances along the way. I have done a lot of hiding of my story however and presenting to people what I thought they wanted to see. There were never any free passes and no one ever paid my way, but I got it done. I survived, found my place and discovered my calling so that I could be useful to my own community. I also have an incredible husband and two of the most beautiful children one could want. 

I grew up in a roach-infested trailer on the wrong side of the tracks in South Carolina, but now I live in a beautiful house and I work at jobs that I am extremely proud of. Granted, I don’t connect well to a lot of my neighbors because I don’t quite “get them” and they don’t quite “get me”. I will always be a little “dark” and “street” for the monogrammed crowd. But it is a dream life compared to what I started with and a miracle if you really think about it, but I try not to over think it because that little girl on the tricycle is always afraid it could change and she will always be with me. She is willing to get out there and ride them streets, but she will never trust that you or those streets are safe.

I have had interesting careers over the years. I have worked as a safety watch for a GE welder during a Nuclear Reactor head replacement. I have worked as a contractor at Capital One because my database skills rock. I am not just a “nurse” or a “survivor”. I am a THRIVER. This is my story and my tale about how the Phoenix can rise from the worst kind of ashes. How then, can anyone, anywhere in this world, tell me that something is too hard for me. Excuse me? I don’t believe you know me, let’s try that introduction again. Shall we?

I have worked in healthcare for over 20 years. I have worked mostly on the business side, but heavily supporting clinical as a pharmacy tech, billing and coding, business office management, and medical transcription. Basically, anything that allowed me to help others and pay my bills. Let me also share that as a Pharmacy Tech I worked for a pharmacy benefit management company. During my time with them, I found myself hiding under my desk from an active shooter and was forgotten by my employer during the evacuation of the building. They were “kind” enough to make me employee of the quarter afterward. Yep…I attract that kind of drama. The trauma didn’t end with childhood. So many stories and so little time. But I survived it and I am here.

I know how broken the system is. I know what my experiences have made me. I know how to work with broken and I am not under the disillusionment that I will be the person to change it all. I can be the person caring for you or your loved one that knows critically, academically and intimately how to get you through it, however. How important is that to you? It means my life. Saving others gives my life meaning and it gives me what I have been through true meaning. In healing others, I have been able to actively heal myself. In doing this I show my children how to navigate life and help others. The benefits never stop as long as I don’t.   I have to do it. I don’t have a choice. And no, absolutely none of it is too hard. What may be too hard for others is that I no longer hide my truth or who I am. I am not your average suburban soccer mom. I am not one of the 2.5 kids from an average military family. I am an anomaly. I am a Phoenix and you, my dearest love, have just met one. Should you ever REALLY need me and hopefully you don’t, I am here for you and I will get you through.  

Kelly Lewandoski RN, FNP-BC, MSN, PCCN

1 Article   129 Posts

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3 Comment(s)

JBMmom, MSN, NP

Specializes in New NP Hospitalist, Critical care, Med-surg, LTC. Has 10 years experience. 4 Articles; 2,020 Posts

Clearly the challenges you have faced far pre-date the pandemic and you have persevered through all of it.

I'm glad to hear that your patient survived and will be able to return home to his loving daughter. I know that feeling of dread and the lack of hope that crept into my ICU, as well as units everywhere, over the past two years. I'm hoping that we will be moving on now and we won't experience anything like that again.

Congratulations on completing your degree! I also just started a NP position, I'm still working my per diem RN position. Don't listen to people being negative about your education, experience or career. Physicians and NPs work together to provide the best in patient care. You haven't portrayed yourself as a physician, and yes, your training is different, but you will fulfill an important role for the patients you serve.

Thank you for sharing your story, best wishes for your new career. 

ZenLover, MSN, RN, NP

Specializes in FNP-BC / ICU. Has 8 years experience. 1 Article; 129 Posts

Thank you for your positive feedback.  It took a pandemic for me to finally just "put" myself out there.  

jobellestarr

296 Posts

Wow, your story and bravery are amazing.Thank you for sharing. ❤️