This New Nurse Discovered She Had a Hard-Earned Knack for Caregiving

A nervous nurse-in-training finds a set of skills she never suspected she possessed, acquired during her husband's recovery from a stroke.

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- Posted on Jan 25, 2018

'My whole life has been in preparation for this next chapter,' says Rachel, who is an RN house manager today

As a nurse in training, I was doing clinical rotations—Med/Surg they were called. I gathered an IV bag and some tubing from the dispensary before setting off on my rounds. The nurse beside me was drawing meds into syringes to be given directly through an IV. I looked on with interest. It’s a multistep procedure, and there was one part that always confused me. “Can you show me how to keep from getting air bubbles in the syringe?” I asked.

She whipped around. “If you have to ask a question like that, you have no business being a nurse,” she said. She turned and walked away.

What if she’s right? I thought. What if I can’t do this?

I’d always dreamed of being a nurse. But I’d never pursued it, instead raising three kids and helping James, my husband, build his real estate business. Now, at age 55, I no longer felt becoming a nurse was about achieving a lifelong goal. Mine was not one of those feel-good, second-act retirement stories you so often hear about.

When I’d started down this road, three years earlier, I’d had it all planned out. I knew it wouldn’t be easy, that I was taking a leap of faith. I’d never even finished college. But I wasn’t afraid of hard work. And James was supportive. It was 2007. Our business was booming. The perfect chance for me to be able to focus on my studies without distractions. I had two years of prerequisites to complete before I could apply to nursing school, a lottery system with only 80 students chosen each year. Those classes, anatomy and physiology especially, nearly killed me.

I was learning about aging, how the brain’s processing speed slows over time. That part I definitely understood. Was I too old? I redoubled my efforts. Took long walks with a girlfriend. I called them my sanity walks. I passed all my courses with A’s and B’s. Then a year in, the economy tanked. Our income slowed to a trickle. “I’m going to quit,” I told James one night as I did the monthly bills. “I need a job right now. We’re not going to make it otherwise.”

“No,” James said. “This is your dream. Don’t worry. I’ve got some deals in the pipeline. We’ll get through this.”

We sold some of our investments and took out a home equity loan. With graduation in sight, I applied to nursing school, but my number wasn’t picked. I was crushed. I called my friend.

“What will I do now?” I asked.

“We never know why things happen,” she said. “Someone might be needing you.”

Two weeks after my graduation, June 2009. James and I had just come home from dinner out. James said he was going to turn in. I went to the bathroom to brush my teeth. I found James on the floor, unresponsive.

At the hospital, the doctor said my husband had suffered a massive stroke. After three weeks, he was discharged. He was able to walk short distances with a cane, seemed to understand simple sentences but couldn’t speak. “Any improvement will be slow,” the doctor said. “After a year, he likely won’t progress any further.”

Caring for James became my total focus. I drove him to speech therapy. We went for walks every day. I showed him flash cards of simple objects. James haltingly traced the letters of each word with his finger.

It was heartbreaking seeing him, a shadow of the strong, confident man I’d married. I’d never felt comfortable around people with disabilities. A weakness I wasn’t proud of. Working with James didn’t make it easier. I wanted to fix him.

He enrolled in a class for people with brain injuries. One of the recommendations was to use a day planner, to give each day structure. But what I couldn’t get over was the way the instructor worked with the students, making sure to connect with each of them, never talking down to them, displaying not even a hint of discomfort. I could never do her job, I thought.

It had been nearly a year. Our savings were practically gone. I needed a paycheck. But doing what? I brain stormed and prayed on it for weeks, but I always ended up in the same place. Nursing school. My onetime dream. Now it was my last hope.

I applied, and this time my number was chosen. I arranged for a dial-a-ride service to take James to his therapist. He was walking now without a cane, able to say a few words and cook simple dishes. It felt like an answer to prayer, how it had all come together. But that was before I’d started classes, doing these Med/Surg rotations. I dreaded them. No matter how I studied, a book couldn’t give me the skills I needed. Things I struggled with for lack of experience. Things I had to learn by doing. Like how to draw meds from a vial. I looked at the IV tubing and bag in my hands. Patients were waiting for me. No time to feel sorry for myself.

Out in the hallway, I said a quick prayer: God, show me a way out. I made a mistake. I can’t do this anymore. I might as well have been talking to myself for all the good it did.

I felt trapped. This was my only chance at landing a decent job. But I couldn’t see any path to actually getting there. No possible ending that didn’t turn out with my husband and me losing everything.

Each rotation was six weeks. I couldn’t share what I was going through with James. I didn’t want him to worry. But I talked with him about everything else, what I was making for dinner, detailing every step, every ingredient, not in a demeaning way, trying to keep it conversational. Skills I’d picked up from the class we’d gone to. It wasn’t easy. Most days I didn’t want to do anything when I came home. But I could tell James was proud of me. “Nurse,” he’d say. “Hard.”

I studied every week with a group of the other nursing students. One of them, Brandy, I grew close to. She was in her late 30s, not as old as me but not a kid. Unlike me, she’d had experience in health care, working as a medical assistant. “We’re all struggling,” she’d tell me. “It’s not just you.”

Brandy had a great sense of humor and in no time could get me giggling. Listening to the other students’ complaints and fears made me realize that I wasn’t alone. I still wasn’t great at the clinical aspects of nursing, though. Despite the other students’ encouragement, I worried I lacked the most basic skills that were required. That encounter in the dispensary still haunted me.

The next rotation was maternity care. Doing assessments of babies and mothers, teaching mothers about breastfeeding and caring for their newborns. Giving medications and vaccinations. While there were clinical parts to it, they weren’t nonstop. I liked how it was more about teaching, helping. How there was more time to spend with our patients, the relationships I was able to build. So many mothers were afraid of not knowing what to do. “You’re just new at it,” I’d tell them. “It’ll get easier. It just takes time.”

My instructors praised me, singling me out for how I was able to put mothers at ease. “You’re a natural at this,” one told me. The final rotation before graduation was psychiatry. We were assigned to a longterm facility. The thought of it filled me with dread. I missed the cheerful warmth of the maternity wing. I worried I wouldn’t be able to relate to the residents, that my anxiety would show.

The first day, I was assigned to do an assessment of one of the facility’s residents, the way I would if he were first being admitted.

He was an older man, his severe mental illness made even more pronounced by the medications he was taking. Slumped, unsmiling, in his chair, no eye contact. Nothing about him warm or inviting. I wasn’t sure how to even begin.

“Hi,” I said. “My name’s Rachel. I’m a nursing student, and I’d like to learn a little bit about you. Would it be okay if we talked?”

He nodded, hesitantly. There was something in his manner that reminded me of James. “Do you have family?” I asked.

He told me about a sister. And his parents, now deceased. How he liked to take walks. About a favorite park. His eyes met mine, suddenly engaged, smiling. I didn’t see a person with a disability. I saw someone who needed care and attention, like any of us. I felt a connection between us. I wasn’t there to give him a shot or change a dressing. Yet this too was nursing. As vital as any clinical procedure. My being here. It wasn’t a mistake. My whole life had been in preparation for this next chapter. I had life experience that other nurses didn’t. I knew what it was like to care for someone who was disabled. I’d gained an empathy I hadn’t had before.

When the interview was over, my instructor said, “You made him feel comfortable. That’s what a good nurse does. You made it look easy.”

I beamed. But his words only affirmed what I was already feeling. I was ready to take the next step.

I graduated a few weeks later in 2012, at 57. One of the happiest days of my life. Today I work as an RN house manager at a residential care facility for adults with acute developmental disabilities. Work that gives me a sense of purpose. What I was meant to do. James is my biggest supporter. He’s come further than anyone could have ever imagined, able to drive on his own, do much of the cooking and most of the chores, have basic conversations. I don’t worry about what the future holds. I give thanks for my blessings. I know we’ll be well taken care of.

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