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To the Nurse Who Made Me Feel Guilty for Using an Elevator

A letter to the nurse (my coworker) who inadvertently made me feel guilty for using an elevator instead of the stairs: I know you didn’t mean for your words to affect me the way they did, for them to hurt me as much as they did. It was the end of a long 12-hour shift for both of us, when I opted to take the elevator to the top of the parking garage, only half joking, “I had to park on the roof today, there’s no way I’m making it all the way up there!” You scoffed, gave a little eye roll, and said, “Well, I was planning on taking the stairs but since you’re not capable of that…” and then joined me in the elevator.

You watched me laugh it off and smile, but what you didn’t see were the broken pieces of my heart as you pointed out one of my biggest insecurities. You didn’t see the way my soul felt crushed as you made a joke of my physical restrictions without even knowing it.

Here’s what else you didn’t know:

You didn’t know that behind my smiling face all day was a huge physical struggle. You didn’t know that I have an invisible illness, that daily activities as “simple” as standing and walking can be difficult.

You didn’t know that I struggled all day to keep my heart rate under control, to combat lightheadedness, and to do it all while providing care to other patients.

You didn’t know that I was counting down the days to my next IV infusion so that I could feel half-normal again.

You didn’t know that the reason I excused myself from a procedure earlier in the shift was because I was very, very near syncope and needed to sit down.

You didn’t know that I have headaches more days than not, and that any amount of exertion can make the pain far worse.

You didn’t know that I wish every single day to have my physical abilities back, to be able to climb four flights of stairs without a second thought or hesitation. You didn’t know that my biggest frustration with this illness is the abilities it has so quickly taken away from me.

You didn’t know that this year, my physical abilities and symptoms have had an incredibly powerful, negative effect on my mental health.

And of course, you didn’t know that comments like these make the emotional part of chronic illness just that much more challenging and painful.

And no, I didn’t mention any of this to you throughout the day. Some may say this is my fault for being secretive, that I can’t expect people to understand if I don’t tell them. But here’s the thing: invisible illness (in the healthcare environment) is the ultimate “damned if I do, damned if I don’t.” If I do mention these symptoms, if I do talk about how poorly I’m feeling during any given shift, I’m sure to eventually be labeled “dramatic,” “attention-seeking” or a “complainer.” But when I opt to hide these struggles underneath the surface? I may appear “normal,” but that’s when I really open myself up to a whole new level of judgment and critique.

I know I don’t have to justify my actions, and I know I don’t owe you an explanation for my actions. But I do hope that someone somewhere will learn something from this.

You see, it’s not just your words or this one interaction that bothers me. It’s the fact that we, as a society, as a world and, even worse, as medical professionals, fail to recognize that so many illnesses and disabilities are invisible, with no outward signs or symptoms. I know this thought probably never crossed your mind. I’m sure your brain didn’t even think of that as a possibility; and that’s where the real problem lies. Friends, family, medical professionals, literally everyone: it’s time we step it up. It’s time we start giving people grace, giving them the benefit of the doubt. It’s time we stop dismissing a patient’s diagnosis or symptoms because they are not visible and because we cannot “see” their pain. And it’s time we stop judging people without knowing how much they’ve overcome just to get out of bed, just to make it through a 12-hour shift, just to continue working at all. It’s time.

Please, please, please:  “Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a battle you know nothing about.”

Image Credits: Sarah Hammerslag