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Perspectives: The Rewards of Rehabilitation Nursing: A Story of Gratitude
When I was a young girl, I never had intense yearnings to become a rehabilitation nurse. While going through nursing school, my heart gravitated toward the labor and delivery unit. Perhaps a great minority of us ever named rehabilitation nursing as our ultimate career choice, yet here we all are—not because we have to be, but because we have been bewitched by the spell of rehab patients climbing mountains that had seemed unconquerable to them when they first began the journey.
One patient who stands out in my mind is Missy. She was a 32-year-old paraplegic patient with a tumor growing on her spine and neuralgia throughout most of her body, but she refused to act as sick as she was. When I walked into her room, it seemed as though the sun was shining no matter what the thermometer outside read. She always managed to make me feel like I could be “nurse of the year” even though I had graduated from school only a year before. I was so rough around the edges, I rivaled sandpaper. When I spilled a liter of dirty bathwater down her neck while washing her hair, for example, she acted as if nothing was out of the ordinary. I dried her off and apologized, only to have her request that I wash her hair again next week because I did such a stellar job.
Once, when her husband attempted to transfer her from the bed to the wheelchair, she stopped him and insisted that I show him how to do the transfer properly. “She’s the only one who doesn’t hurt me,” Missy explained. I swelled with pride. In that instant, I felt immeasurably grateful that I was a rehab nurse, that I had the knowledge base to help Missy any way I could.
I remember the day she developed a common cold. Dread weighted my soul as I pondered her condition. The tumor had crept up her spine from the lumbar region to the thoracic region, cramping the nerves that animate the diaphragm. I tried to remain cheerful, but soon the rattling created by her breathing was louder than her attempts to cough. I taught her to quad cough with me, but we did not create enough force together to clear her lungs.
Missy slipped into unconsciousness the second week of her cold, and I was there the few times she awakened. I was at her bedside for her last lucid moment. She looked at me with frightened eyes and implored, “Amanda, I’m not ready to die. I can’t leave my baby. There are still so many thing I need to fix, so many things I need to do.”
I was speechless. My rehab training hadn’t prepared me for this. Most of my patients got better, not worse. I was hurting inside but didn’t want to show it. So that I wouldn’t cry, I decided to lighten the mood. “It’s okay to die, Missy,” I joked, “Lots of people have done it.”
“Oh, Amanda,” she sighed, assuming a rolled-eyed expression while at the same time smiling. She passed quietly in the early morning—no codes, no bustle, no fuss. Her young spirit just slipped silently from the bondage of her crippled body.
Although I never aspired to become a rehabilitation nurse, I will forever be grateful that I stumbled upon this career. Rehab was supposed to be a summer job, a transition from my new-graduate status to my coveted obstetrics career. It was a way to pay the bills. In the end, the knowledge and experience I gained as a rehab nurse turned out to be much more than all of these things. I was there when my sister Missy needed me, and I was able to show my love for her through the art of rehabilitation nursing.
The miracle of birth is what enticed me to the labor and delivery floor. In a way, however, I still get to witness that miracle in my current profession. When I see a patient with a spinal cord injury use an adaptive device to feed himself for the firt time, or a stroke victim relearn to tie her shoes, it is like a new person is born. The hope born of rehabilitation opens these patients’ eyes to a new life that previously did not exist for the injured, the sick, the downcast.
Although my sister died, most of the patients I work with experience a form of resurrection. Mourning the loss of Missy has helped me to become more understanding as some of my patients mourn the loss of their old selves and work on starting anew. I have a depth that I never had before, and a love of nursing that stems from the gratitude I have that I was able to help my sister. There are many more people out there like her, and this is why I am still a rehabilitation nurse.
Amanda L. Jones is a rehabilitation nurse at Utah Valley Regional Medical Center in Provo, UT. Address correspondence to her at 420 E. 400 S., Provo, UT 84606.
Editor’s Note: This article won second place in the 2004 Rehabilitation Nursing Writers’ Contest.