I still remember the first time I encountered the "ugly cry" in nursing.
I was just starting my clinical rotation during my first quarter in the program and we were working at the nursing assistant level in a local nursing home. I remember the first patient I had and I remember the day that she died. It was incredibly sad but that wasn't the first time I experienced the ugly cry. No, the first time I was overtaken by those debilitating tears was the day I met my first patient's roommate at the nursing home. She had been gone the first few days we were there because she was getting a procedure done and needed to be admitted to the nearest hospital. I had been taking care of my first patient for almost a week when she arrived and I remember being startled as I walked through the door that day.
"I didn't realize there were two people staying in this room." I thought to myself as I backpeddled out the door to check the name on the plate near the entryway.
I read the name and smiled to myself "That's the same name as my youth pastor from highschool. How funny!" I thought. It was a common name with a unique spelling and as I walked through the door I instantly realized who I was walking towards.
It was my youth pastor's mom. I knew he lived in the area and I remember the stories he would tell about her during sermons at youth group or on mission trips to mexico. She had a degenerative disease called MS or Multiple Sclerosis. It's a chronic, incurable, autoimmune disease that affects the central nervous system and causes the person to eventually lose almost all control of bodily functions. Walking, talking, sensation etc. It is a devastating disease and is heartbreaking to watch unfold.
I remember my youth pastor, Steve telling us about the time his mom wasn't able to make it to the bathroom during one of her most severe MS attacks. She had soiled herself and was trapped on the bedroom floor until Steve came home to find her. Steve had to pick his mom up off the floor and proceed to carry her into the bathroom to clean her up. He described how incredibly humbling it was for them both and despite the awkwardness of the situation, they both chose to laugh about it and make the best of what were awful circumstances. But that was the day they both decided that she would need to be put into a home. I believe she was in her early forties at the time.
Now here I am, years later, a college student walking into this woman's room, knowing the history of her disease and the affect it had on her family. I felt the air in my lungs starting to escape.
I introduced myself as I walked in and her face completely lit up. She threw her limp arms into the air and reached out to hug me. We proceeded to talk about her son Steve and how much he had impacted my life. I told her about my journey getting into nursing school and my dreams to become a missionary someday... partially inspired by the mission trips I had taken with her son in youth group.
She was such a beam of light in that room that day. Here I was, this terrified nursing student, dressed in this hideous blue vest that was big enough to fit two of me in the waist but was so tightly wrapped around my hips the bottom buttons were about to pop off. The pockets stretching as they were stuffed with medication guides, notepads and a blood pressure cuff. I was awkward and tired and yet so thankful to finally be in the program after a two year wait. Nursing school was horrendous though and I felt very alone most of the time and was in survival mode all of the time.
I was broken then and on that day, Steve's mom was a ray of hope.
She was so positive and kind and encouraging. She congratulated me and said I was doing a wonderful job. She even started giving me tips about my patient. Her roommate was a much, much older woman with severe Alzheimer's who would repeatedly whisper, "Where are we?" and "Where are we going?" throughout the whole day. As our conversation carried on I began to take in my surroundings. This was her life. Every day she would wake up to this woman next to her asking, "Where are we?" and she would kindly respond, "We are in our room, my dear." Occasionally she would tack on a chipper, "And in a couple of minutes we are about to watch Jeopardy!"
But that was her every day and it had been her every day for years and will continue to be until the day that MS completely takes over her body and runs its course.
I finished up my conversation with her and said that I needed to go check in with my instructor.... finding any excuse I could to leave the room before those debilitating tears made their way to the surface for all to see.
I made my way out to the gardens of the nursing home and managed to make it to the edge of the property where I was invisible before the flood gates hit. I sat there and sobbed uncontrollably for what felt like an eternity. I don't think I can even tell you to this day what it was that triggered that ugly cry. I think it was a combination of things really... the knowledge of Steve and the struggles he went through in putting his mom in the nursing home. Remembering the tears he shed while explaining the difficulties of that decision. The relief I had of finding someone I knew in such an unfamiliar and terrifying place. The release of fear and stress I had been carrying... doubting whether I was really cut out to be a nurse at all.
Or maybe it was the realization that the world I was in wasn't nearly as bad as I thought. I had my health. I had people who loved me a lot. I had a job and was on my way to becoming a person that could make a difference in the lives of people like her. I was incredibly lucky.
And yet somehow she managed to be my light that day. She managed to give me hope and encouragement. She made my day infinitely better. She made that clinical rotation infinitely better. In the midst of incredible pain and devastation... she managed to show me the bigger picture that day.
That no matter what the circumstances... you can choose to have joy... you can choose to be joy.
And really... in the grand scheme of things... life is just too short not to have joy.
*All pictures taken on the coastal highway in Northern Ireland