You can read Part 1 here.
I was hospitalized for 10 days, during which I underwent several more procedures and discussed the potential plan of my care with the doctors. I received a 3rd blood transfusion and a long-term IV line was placed in my arm, so that I could be discharged home on long-term IV antibiotics. My mom, who had flown out once I was diagnosed, stayed with me, and then for several days I stayed with a colleague because I was still too weak to care for myself.
I lost my position at the Children’s hospital, but my boss did not lay me off, which meant that I remained an employee still eligible for health insurance. This was a massive blessing, as my trajectory was anticipated to include major surgery.
Within a few short weeks, after complications which included severe nausea and vomiting in reaction to the antibiotics, and with the knowledge that I would not be able to return to working anytime soon, I came to the realization that I had to move home from Minnesota. It was my only option, as I was still awaiting the processing of my disability paperwork and I could not face recovery by myself. I sold the gorgeous vintage furniture pieces I had bought, cleared out and donated the contents of my apartment, and a friend from Michigan flew out to drive me home.
I struggled with the belief that Minnesota was a failed project, and I wondered if I heard God wrong in taking the position, because of what it had cost me. I lost a long-term friendship and left my job within a year of starting it. My body and mind were fractured as the emotional wounds manifested as physical debilitation.
But at the same time, I barely possessed the energy to think through any emotional effects. All of my energy, from the time of my hospitalization and diagnosis, was spent on my physical recovery. I melted into the old fabric of life in my parents’ house, taking my old room in the basement and unpacking the limited items I had fit into my car. I slowly re-established connections with a few of my friends, sharing parts of my experience in Minnesota as I was emotionally unpacking it myself. I returned to my former parish, feeling distant from life there but participating in the universal sharing of the Mass.
Autumn in Michigan was beautiful, and it took several weeks to re-establish care with the cardiac program. As I awaited my appointment, I found a therapist. My disability payments for long-term coverage came through, and with financial stability I was able to pay for the appointments.
I ended up right at the same place my heart journey started, the University of Michigan Health System. This is where I was first diagnosed with a heart defect at the age of two days old, and where I had undergone previous interventional procedures to examine the progress of the defect. So, how appropriate that the surgeon recommended to repair my heart was a man I had worked alongside for four years? My nursing career began on the congenital heart floor at U of M’s pediatric hospital, and I knew many members of care team as previous colleagues. Surgery was scheduled for as soon as possible, right before Christmas.
I completely trusted the medical team and knew that I was in the best possible hands. My biggest fear was pain, as I had witnessed so many patients coming out of surgery and knew of the significant recovery they faced. In addition, my body was severely deconditioned from a year’s worth of physical injury and illness. So I knew it would be an uphill battle.
Surgery went as smoothly as it could have, with no complications and, thanks be to God, excellent pain control. I was listened to and heard, and my preferences were honored. Sure enough, I was out of bed the next morning and walking the halls of my unit. I recognized many of the nurses, and each one of them showed great kindness and understanding. I had a short hospital stay and returned home to recover over the Christmas holiday and through the winter.
I felt remarkably better physically within the first few days, but being a good patient, I timed medications and activity very carefully. I limited my interactions and slept many hours during the day, truly resting for the first time in almost two years. I was TIRED from all that I carried, from the shock and irony of my illness, and from a literal and metaphorical repair of my heart. It was not lost on me that I had experienced that vision in the weeks before my hospitalization in the summer, or that my actual heart was what needed to be cut open, a hole patched and a valve re-secured. The infection had damaged the valve and torn the cords that affixed it to the wall of the heart, rendering it almost useless to move blood through to my lungs and therefore to my body.
Within a few weeks, my recovery was hampered as I experienced severe upper and mid- back pain. I had triggering thoughts of the herniated disc I suffered the year before, but what was happening was that, as my muscles were recovering from the trauma that surgery induces, they were tight and cramping as my range of motion was increasing.
During surgery, the sternum, or breastbone, is cut down the middle, the ribs are spread apart and pushed outward—think of an accordion or an old-fashioned bellows for a fire. When surgery concludes, the ribs are pulled back together and the breastbone is wired closed. The muscles are tight and guard themselves, trying to protect the upper body. My ribs began to sublux, or slide out of place, as they were pulled by the tightened and cramped muscles. I attended regular physical therapy appointments and was deeply grateful for the care and gentle work my therapists performed as my body moved as it should for the first time.
My parents strongly encouraged me to get back to work as soon as possible, to volunteer, and to undertake what they perceived to be helpful, active rehabilitation strategies. Yet for the first time in my life, I felt the urge to do absolutely nothing that I was not wholly drawn to do. It was a daily struggle to believe that I did not have to “do” anything to prove my worth, as this flew in the face of everything I had believed for the first four decades of my life. But the fact remained that I felt no desire to participate in activities that I felt only stirred in me a sense of obligation. I sat and rested and gently exercised my heart and soul, reading and listening and being still. My doctor was a huge ally for me. The “6-week” rule, she told me, about returning to work, meant that I would not completely screw up my job, but it did NOT mean that I was physically, emotionally, and spiritually ready to be back at the bedside. She urged me to continue resting, seeking therapy, praying, and feeling what I felt.
My entire self was learning what genuine motivation and calling was. Everything in me was content to wait on what was to happen next, and not to assign myself tasks which felt artificial. For the first time I learned to say the word “no,” with no need for explanation or fear of being a disappointment by letting someone down. My friendship circle was whittled down to those who connected with and understood the deep work that was happening, did not exert pressure to do or be more than I could be, and who were patient with the metamorphosis I was undergoing.
At the same time, I began to process the last two years with a terrific therapist. She was Christian and soft-spoken, and listened as I started talking and words just spilled out of my mouth. We worked together to walk deep into my past, uncovering the wounds from childhood and the patterns they established, the ways I taught myself to cope, and the false selves that took up residence in my mind and heart. It was painstaking and tedious work, and I did not know from session to session what might come forward. The connection between my emotions and my body was undeniable. But the validation of my experiences, the knowledge that I was not an isolated island, hearing myself verbalize things that had not been divulged in years (decades sometimes!) was powerful, as she would repeat my statements back to me and focus on what I thought were small nuances but were actually profound, deep-seeded sentiments.
I returned to work in the same unit where my career started, and where I had been hospitalized. I worked part-time, 8-hour shifts, and found a deeper connection with my patients than I had held before. I had been where they were, in the waves of unknown, vulnerability, weakness, fear and uncertainty. I was rebuilding my life from the roots up, and I soaked in the depth and experiences of the patients and families I now served. My work held new meaning.
I also knew I would not be staying in Michigan, but would be led elsewhere where the winters are not frozen, gray, and brown for months at a time. The darkness of night in Minneapolis and another two cold years in the Michigan tundra were enough for me to know that I desired warmer climates. And so I lived in New Mexico for a few years, where a whole new set of memories and challenges met me and where I found yet another fabulous therapist to resume the trauma work that needed attention after a few years tucked away. Now my life is here in Austin, in perhaps the most fulfilling and challenging position I have held thus far in my career.
The unraveling that likely began in Haiti, and the effects of it during my time in Minnesota, were absolutely and crucially necessary for the healing of my body, mind and spirit. I know that if I had stayed in Michigan after Haiti and had not taken that job in the Twin Cities, I would not have undergone the debridement and resuscitation of my heart. I am grateful for every moment of that darkness, the illness, the surgery and the recovery. I relish that my worth is not found in what I do, though that is a huge part of my life and calling. I move and act and speak and work authentically, with no room for falsehood.
Two decades ago, on a mission trip in Nicaragua, I cared for a young boy who came into our clinic with a horrific wound on his foot due to untreated and festering insect bites. I was instructed to gently remove the layers of skin that were infected, scrubbing and patting with soap and water layer by layer, until I could uncover the bed of the wound. As I scrubbed, the little boy writhed in pain, burying his face in his mother’s lap, but still willingly gave his foot to be cleansed. At one point, I reached a place where I could not inflict any more pain on this child, and I had to defer to the physician directing me, handing him the tools to complete the cleansing. He did, and then gave me the task of putting ointment on and wrapping the raw skin, earning the boy a sturdy new pair of tennis shoes.
I still think about that story, because it is a parallel to so many of our situations. We depend on other humans to fix our wounds, to bring them into the open, to remove the layers of infected beliefs, lies, despairing thoughts and words, or we try to scrub open the tissue ourselves. But we cannot heal ourselves. We cannot force others to change or become open to renewal. That task must be surrendered to the Physician who knows the depths of our wounding and who can Himself repair the damage this world has done to us.