A Chance Encounter Launches a Second Career as a Nurse
Jun 1, 2012, 1:15 PM, Posted by Adam Pike
By Adam Pike, BSN, a Robert Wood Johnson Foundation New Careers in Nursing (NCIN) scholar and recent graduate of the Donna and Allan Lansing School of Nursing and Health Sciences at Bellarmine University in Louisville, Kentucky.
I had blown off graduate school for a semester and moved in with a friend living in northern Honduras, ostensibly to spend time developing my Spanish language skills. We occupied a small one—room, key—lime concrete block, completely permeable for a variety of local fauna. A coconut tree was visible from our small stoop on which I sat during many afternoons while rain rattled the metal roof like a snare drum. We washed our laundry with a washboard and cistern in the company of chickens, dogs owned by no one, and playful, kind neighbors who regarded us as a kind of novelty. It was the perfect environment in which to pull back from familiar routine and plunge into academics and artistry. I carried out this mission somewhat anonymously in our austere apartment, with the exception of trips for fruit to the ancient wooden cart at the corner, or perhaps to the pharmacy to remedy the inevitable abdominal maladies that occur for foreigners.
Of the many bouts of illness we fought, only one was potent enough to warrant a hospital stay. On this occasion, as I stood in the dilapidated public ER, looking down at my sick friend in his hospital bed, I saw a young Honduran woman wheeled through the entrance of the ER and immediately placed in a vacant bed adjacent to my friend. In this open room, filled with patients suffering from dengue fever, dehydration, and physical trauma, it was immediately clear this pale, sweating woman, desperately gasping, was far more ill than the rest. As she disappeared in an impromptu room the staff conjured from panels of spare drape, I saw patches of dark bruises climbing her forearms.
As the evening passed, my friend napped, and I ventured behind the white curtains to offer anything I could—really, nothing—to the young woman breathing through a mask and her mother, her only company. For what followed, nothing could have prepared me. We conversed, traded stories, said prayers.
I left the building to breathe and had scarcely been outside for more than a moment when someone had come to retrieve me, saying the young woman and her mother had asked for me. It seemed even the air had changed since I had left a moment before. The woman’s mother waved me over to join her and the circle of women gathering on cue and sounding prayerful chants.
The young woman asked me to hold her hand, and I did, kneeling down at her right side. She said, “Vamos a orar.” We are going to pray. And we prayed, with few words. She raised my hand into the air with hers, and then, it was my hand that held hers. Her final breath brushed across my face, through my hair, and then far beyond me, the room, and the building. After the nurse had taken the woman away, I gave the mother a hug, and then left once again for the outside air—this time for a long breath.
I recall feeling overwhelmed with emotion, but not disturbed. I felt honored that this woman allowed me into one of the most sacred moments in her life. I also felt surprised that I was comfortable—at home, even—in that sacred moment.
But these thoughts were like windows and doors belonging to a home yet to be made; I had no place for them, though I could see through them and view unfamiliar, intriguing horizons.
Weeks later, my friend and I accepted an assignment to serve as interpreters for a traveling medical brigade. We worked in extreme rural settings, constructing ad hoc clinics, at an inspirational pace held by physicians and nurses who constantly pushed the limits of generosity. As I befriended the group of health care professionals, all from the United States, my story began to circulate. They advised me to give special consideration to the story, and some of them suggested weighing the option of entering the medical field.
When I returned to the U.S. and graduate course work, the disruption that began in the Honduran hospital amplified. Even the simplest assignments seemed impossible to complete, and my attention, often caught in the breeze, would regularly land and reminisce on thoughts of the experiences abroad. I found myself looking through the fragments that followed me home—the coconut tree, the people suffering from illness, the hospital bed.
Time outside of class pulled me away from academia and increasingly closer to working among the urban poor. Finally, my faculty advisor pulled me aside. She told me her observations, and said it seemed to her that my heart was elsewhere. When I recounted the stories of Honduran travel to her, she immediately responded by encouraging me to explore a health care career. Her exhortation propelled me to take prerequisite courses for nursing school, which I began in 2008. Four years later, I have completed my BSN in Louisville, Kentucky.
Even with full Federal eligibility for loans, tuition costs and education expenses far exceeded what my wife and I could afford. The NCIN scholarship made it possible for me to realize my goal, initially through finances and then through continued support throughout my BSN program by encouraging faculty mentorship and professional contacts and advising. We are truly grateful.
New Careers in Nursing is a program of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and the American Association of Colleges of Nursing. It is designed to: help alleviate the national nursing shortage; increase the diversity of nursing professionals; expand capacity in baccalaureate and graduate nursing programs; and enhance the pipeline of potential nurse faculty.
This commentary originally appeared on the RWJF Human Capital Blog. The views and opinions expressed here are those of the authors.