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The Unexpected Superpowers I Have as a Chronically Ill Nurse

I am a registered nurse with a chronic health condition. We do exist. I have worked with many other nurses who have chronic health problems such as multiple sclerosis, psoriatic arthritis, rheumatoid arthritis, CRPS, chronic migraines, lupus, antiphospholipid antibody syndrome, autonomic dysfunction, asthma, diabetes, mitochondrial disease, adrenal insufficiency, Ehlers-Danlos Syndrome, Crohns disease, Celiac, Marfans Syndrome, a variety of different cancers, fibromyalgia, and even a nurse with cystic fibrosis. Many of us have had our condition since childhood, long before choosing a career in the health field. Many of us chose our career because of our experiences as “hospital children” or “chronic kids.” All of us have experienced discrimination at some point in our career, most often during nursing school. The number of people who have doubted our ability to become and maintain a career in nursing far surpasses the number of people who believed in us.

It is understandable why people have doubted us, nursing is a difficult and demanding career. It requires a large quantity of physical, emotional and mental strength. It demands good coping mechanisms. Critical thinking skills are imperative. People assume we lack this because society views us as fragile, weak and dependent. I will correct you. The only quality that nursing demands that we are deficient in is physical strength. We have more emotional and mental strength than you could possibly imagine. The coping mechanisms developed from years of being betrayed by your own body far surpasses any strategies you could attempt to teach in a school setting. The innovative and creative ways we have developed to work around our physical limitations have developed critical thinking skills you could only hope to teach in a school setting. We are not “less than” because of our conditions, but are actually “more than.”
Our strength, coping mechanisms and intellectual abilities are not the only thing we have developed throughout our journey.

We have also developed an ability to empathize with our patients in ways you could never understand. We have developed a work ethic and determination you could only dream of. We have reached a level of compassion that no words could describe. We have been there, in the place of our patient. We still end up there from time to time. We know how it feels, we know how to make it better, we know how to truly connect with our patients. We know the fears, the joys, the tears and the frustration. Their journey becomes ours, and our dedication to getting them better does not falter. We truly know how to deliver quality care. We know the small things that matter, the things that get overlooked and we know how to address them. Therapeutic communication comes naturally to us, we don’t have to learn it in a textbook. We understand the dynamics of relationships, the stress of the family and how to truly provide family-centered care. Until you have been in that hospital bed yourself, you can not understand what it is like to be stuck there. Until you have been betrayed by your own body, you cannot understand the mental impact. It is our experiences as patients that have allowed us to succeed as providers.

Despite all the strengths and abilities we bring to the table, we have still been doubted. After all, how can you be a nurse with physical limitations? This is where a very important concept comes into play. While we must work smart to prevent injuries, we also understand the need to work smart to protect the bodies of our coworkers. Our bodies are not infallible and if we do not use correct body dynamics, even the healthiest of nurses will end up with back and neck injuries. We take the concept of “team work” very seriously. I help you, you help me. We tackle every physical task together as a team. Proper body mechanics makes the biggest difference for all nurses. I have seen far too many “healthy nurses” become injured and disabled by the job. Sadly, this could easily be prevented. Nursing schools focus so much on teaching skill labs, critical thinking, leadership and therapeutic communication that they forget the most important thing to teach: how to protect your body so that you can be a better nurse for a longer period. The average nurse works full-time for four years before changing careers. That is a terrible waste of time and money spent on an education and orientation. While much of this is because of staffing ratios, another huge factor is physical injuries. Nursing schools need to teach proper body mechanics: how to safely move, turn, transfer and ambulate patients. There are methods that take the strain off your body-utilizing slide boards, turn sheets and “putting your knees into it instead of your back into it,” are a few simple examples. The best units are and will always be the units with the best teamwork. As people with chronic health conditions, we pay particular attention to our bodies and preventing injuries. We work smart and hard. We actually become less likely to sustain injuries because we pay more attention to prevention. We are very in tune with our bodies and assess our limitations. The average healthy person is not so familiar with the limitations of their bodies and may think, “I can do this, I don’t have time to wait on a coworker,” and throw their back out in the process. This difference in mentality becomes an asset to our employer rather than a hindrance. We are protecting ourselves, but our focus on teamwork ends up protecting our coworkers as well. It makes us favorable to coworkers because we are always willing to help. After all, we wouldn’t expect them to do something that we aren’t willing to do ourselves.

Furthermore, there is this assumption that all nursing students will graduate to become bedside nurses in an adult hospital. This is perhaps the most physically challenging field of nursing for the nurse with a chronic health condition. People forget that there are many different fields of nursing, and that some are better suited to our individual needs. We know our bodies and our limitations, we usually won’t choose a field of nursing that will most likely harm us. We often become NICU or pediatric nurses, or nurses, clinic nurses, or work in outpatient offices. We may become case workers, forensic nurses, on-call nurses for insurance companies, or sales representatives. Every single field of nursing is physically demanding, but they are physically demanding in different ways. The field we are least likely to continue in because of the way it is physically demanding is bedside adult nursing, but some of us are still well-suited for that particular job. I struggled physically as an adult critical care nurse, but I am more than physically capable as a pediatric critical care nurse. We are intimately familiar with our bodies and limitations, so the fact that someone is going to school and entering the field should be enough to tell you that they are capable of performing the job.

If I tell you I can do it, believe me. I have spent more time than you can imagine researching and evaluating the job requirements to determine whether I can do it. None of us will attempt to do something that may make us worse, we don’t want to be worse.
There are physical limitations that cannot be overcome and accommodated for. There are people who are fully disabled by the same conditions that we aren’t fully disabled by. Every health condition is a spectrum and we are not always as severe as the last person you met with the same condition. Do not use their disabilities to doubt us, but also do not use our abilities to doubt them. We are all affected differently by our conditions. We are all individuals joined in a community. One that I hope you never have to be a part of, but one that gives us certain superpowers. And even our superpowers are not all the same.

 

Photo credit: KatarzynaBialasiewicz/Getty Images