It’s National Nursing Week

Thank a nurse today 🙂

Laura and I just before I was discharged from St. Clare’s Hospital in St. John’s, NL.

Recently, I underwent surgery at St. Clare’s Hospital in St. John’s and I had a week-long hospital stay afterward.

That was a hellish week. There were times I was writhing in pain on the bed or turning in circles in the middle of the night wringing my hands saying, “I don’t know what to do.”

Thank goodness, the nurses knew what to do.

They administered meds, and changed IVs, and reinserted catheters and adjusted pillows to try to get me comfortable. They talked to the doctors about what I needed. But most of all they showed care and compassion and empathy. They held my hand and hugged me. They asked about my kids and commiserated about my totally unfair cancer. They listened without judgment. When I asked, they told me about their children and their own lives. I needed those normal conversations. It made me feel like the world was still turning.

They related stories of past patients who had the same invasive surgery as me but were now scuba diving in Mexico.

They gave me hope. They helped me understand that I would learn to navigate the changes in my body. They gently encouraged me to dream about new adventures when just walking down the hall was a challenge.

Sometimes at night I heard people running in the halls, beeps and buzzers, and yells and calls. I know my nurses were juggling a lot. At the end of a twelve-hour shift, how tired must they have been? But they always came in to say good-bye and let me know when they would be back.

I missed them when I left the hospital, and I’ve thought of them often since. Maybe I’ll go back and visit someday. I want to hear how they are doing. And I will tell them all about my latest adventures so they can pass the stories on to their new charges.

Since I’ve returned home from the hospital I’ve gotten to know some other nurses and they have eased my transition. One nurse in particular has made herself available to me every week for an appointment so she can monitor my progress. She e-mails me regularly and answers all of my questions, provides me with supplies, and reassures me when I am worried. My healing time is lengthened by the radiation I underwent prior to surgery, a fact I didn’t realize until she explained it all to me. She is a wealth of knowledge and information and I don’t know what I would do without her.

Thank-you, Nicole. I hope you like chocolate, ’cause I’m getting you some 🙂

Helping Others Process Emotions

Cancer patients, and anyone dealing with trauma, need empathy and a listening ear.

As a counsellor, I am trained to use what we call an “empathic response.” Many people think that counsellors or therapists give advice, but first and foremost what we do is listen and respond with empathy. We may ask probing questions to help our client flesh out a story or an issue, but ultimately we realize that they are the expert on their own life. We rarely give direct advice to clients, choosing instead to be a listener and a guide, or a sounding board for ideas. When a client is confused or seems to be off-course, we may issue a challenge which is designed to encourage reflection and, perhaps, problem-solving. Listening, acknowledging and affirming of emotions comes first, though.

Why am I writing this description of what a counsellor does? I’ve been reflecting even more than usual lately on how we emotionally support people who have undergone trauma. As someone who is in the throes of invasive, scary and body modifying cancer surgery and treatments, I often feel shut down by the following statements:

Be Positive. Stay Positive. Think Positive. Use your good attitude. Smile.

These are the things we say to people who are going through difficult life events in our culture.

Now, I’m sure I’m guilty of saying these things in social contexts before. In my professional role I wouldn’t say, “Well, you just have to be positive,” to someone who is wracked with sadness or anger or grief. But I’ve probably said something like this to acquaintances in the grocery store or at the theatre when they confide that they are dealing with a difficult problem.

What do people feel when we do this to them? They feel isolated and alone.

We have ignored their emotions. We have given the message that the only acceptable emotion is happiness, and put forth the idea that one must bottle up other emotions and push them inside. We have said, “Don’t share these emotions with me. They are disturbing.”

What would be a better response? How can we support others emotionally?

“It sounds like a really tough time for you,” “You can tell me about your experience,” “This is so difficult for you,” “I’m really sorry to hear this. “

Respond with empathy, make eye contact, and just listen. Offer support. That’s it, no platitudes required. Usually the individual we are talking with will feel lighter after this encounter, and us listeners will feel a sense of efficacy.

Pretending everything is fine when it isn’t drives isolation. Recognition of and sharing of emotion is what creates human connection. And human connection is a catalyst for happiness, so it’s a win-win, really!

The Timber You’re Cutting

Photo credit: Colette Kenney

My cousin, Colette, saw this quote on a whiteboard somewhere and sent it to me recently, and it just seemed to fit so well.

What timber are you cutting today?

We all manage so much over the course of our lives, but there are times when the timber gets really thick, or the saw pile gets really deep, and we have to find the strength to get through it.

On my son’s 15th birthday this year, I walked smack into a whole wide unexpected forest. Diagnosed with colorectal cancer at 11:00 am, I was baking an apple pie at 2:00. My husband and I stumbled through the birthday supper, not looking at one another, and waited until the kids were in bed to stare at one another in crazed disbelief.

My whole life just slammed to a stop, and I was left staring absentmindedly into space or crying in dark corners between doctors’ appointments and scans. My thoughts coiled and uncoiled like a rope. Sometimes panic took the end of the rope in her teeth and ran and ran and it took all of my strength to reign her in.

This is my one of my first blog posts, and I don’t want it to be all about cancer. I want it to be about rewriting life, and cutting through the noise and expectations we shoulder everyday.

The meat falls away from the bone so quickly when things fall apart. Work – there was no way I could navigate my demanding job and deal with cancer treatments at the same time. Social commitments – all of a sudden, my friends became lifelines. Family time – yes please! Each and every interaction with my kids, husband and family became more special to me.

I can look back now only two months later and see how quickly my priorities shifted. I can also look back to that day and remember one strategy that I developed that reliably eased my stress and panic.

It was a visualization strategy, inspired in part by a book I was reading about Buddhism and then brought to life by my observation of a black speck that appeared in the water of my bath that evening. I watched the speck as it dipped and dived with the movement of the water. I moved my knee, and it swirled about in the eddy I created. I sliced my hand sideways and the speck lifted slightly towards the surface on the wave I brought forth.

Watching that speck, I realized that I was exactly the same. No more important, no less important, but caught up in waves and motions that I really could not control. I settled my shoulders down and relaxed and took some deep breaths and thought to myself that I would flow gently along with the waters I was immersed in.

Every day I did this visualization, and it brought me great relief.

What responsibility we shoulder! What great draughts of importance we gulp everyday! Recognizing our humble nature and honouring our helplessness is so freeing.

All we have is this moment in time – the past is gone and the future is yet to come. Right here, right now, we have some substance. Everything else is but a dream.

Peace Signs and Laser Beams

One of my brother’s fine old windows

Bolstering myself for the strangeness ahead I make an odd lonely peace sign in front of Josh’s window. Driving to the hospital I am so normal. The afternoon traffic laughs at me. Ordinary things like driving and giving your body up to medical science.

This is the first part of my treatment program. I am freshly freckled, my little black markings perfectly aligned. I imagine my tumor, happy and safe in its fleshy bed, is unaware of the coming onslaught. I feel a little sorry for it.

One of my mom’s legendary pieces of advice – when you are facing something difficult, focus on the after.

I will have a nice supper and glass of wine later with Josh and Ozgen. I will lie on the couch and read – imagine such a luxury on a Monday! My husband and children are at home, going to after school activities and slogging through homework. I am in the ether.

In the waiting room wool and needles await. All who sit here are invited to knit a square for a cancer patient’s afghan. I realize too late I chose an over-long pair of needles. I am clumsy and my thumb joint aches. I don’t want to knit the afghan square but there are others here and now I’ve committed. I jump up too quickly when my name is called, send the partially completed square flying into the basket with relief.

Lovely technicians talk to me and I am at ease in my hospital gown. In true Newfoundland fashion, we discuss our places of origin until we discern that I grew up down the street from one of their cousins. They organize my body on the machine, turn up the music and reassure me before they leave.

The machine approaches me confidently and turns all about my body, whirring and clicking. I think lights like eyes are on me but I’m not supposed to move so I don’t really see much. The lighthearted music makes me feel celebratory.

I christen the machine Wall-E. Soon it rests and they come back. They ask me how I’m doing. I tell them my surgery is next Monday. I ask about side effects and they explain that by the time I’m able to feel side effects the surgery will be done and that will cover them up anyway.

“So go out and have a nice dinner, have some fun! Your radiation therapy is 20% finished!” they say. They fuss around me for a moment. I would be lying if I said I did not enjoy the attention.

I float out of the Cancer Center. I am still in one piece. I am still me.

I made it to the after. We all make it to the after, in our way.

So many of my friends write me jokes about getting a laser beam to my ass. I really love them for it. I kind of wish I could show them Wall-E.