I was 13, working as a candy striper at a nursing home in Syracuse, New York, when I decided that I wanted to be a nurse. I enjoyed the contact with clients — even the ones who would spit at me or hurl their scrambled eggs.
During my first year, I learned to be a charge nurse, rotate shifts and juggle large numbers of patients. I also learned how to go without meals or breaks.
I found my first critical care job at the University of Utah. I was in my early 20s and was able to handle the stress of working 12-hour night shifts.
I looked out the window of the ICU and saw the helicopters and thought, “I can do that some day.” I got busy getting certifications.
I secured a position with the flight team in 1988. I flew in helicopters and airplanes, covering a seven-state area. I was in a steady relationship, successful in my job and loving life. Then disaster struck—my first bout of mental illness. I took a leave of absence because of severe depression. With the right combination of medication, a psychiatrist, Recovery, Inc., my family and fiancé, I was able to go back to work.
Then, over a weekend, I became ill with what was ultimately diagnosed as a malignant renal cell carcinoma of the right kidney. It required a radical nephrectomy and lymph node dissection.
My daughter was born in October and I noticed that as I nursed her, my right arm and shoulder sometimes felt numb, tingly and shaky.
Three months later, I went back to work as a flight nurse. Rotating shifts and not getting enough sleep, the tremor reappeared.
One day, while practicing airway management with an anesthesiologist, my right hand and arm began shaking uncontrollably. “What’s the matter with you?” he snapped.
Finally, I began taking Mysoline for the tremors. But I had fallen back into depression. A psychiatrist reworked the medication regimen that treated the depression and did not aggravate the tremor. I could barely walk or feed myself.
By January 2001, I had quit my job—the essential tremor was permanent. Luckily, my husband received a promotion and we moved to Colorado.
I decided to put my disability to work for me. I was still an intelligent, resourceful individual. My hands just didn’t work very well.
I enrolled at Regis University. The school provided a note taker, extra time during tests, oral exams and DragonSpeak — voice recognition software. I graduated with my BSN in 2003.
What the future holds for me in nursing, I am not certain. I applied for a job with Care Core National, which pre-approves radiological procedures for insurance companies. At the interviews, I came right out about my handicap.
I was hired and the company accommodated me by purchasing an adaptive mouse. In addition, I volunteer at a program that provides free healthcare to the underserved. While I do miss the excitement of flight nursing, I recognize that this disability has sent my life and career in directions that I may not otherwise have explored. It has made it possible to show others that as a nurse, I am far more than a pair of hands, disability or no disability.
Excerpt from a chapter by Nicole Freeman,RN, BSN in “Leave No Nurse Behind: Nurses working with disAbilities” by Donna Maheady, EdD, ARNP available at
www.LeaveNoNurseBehind.com. Proceeds from sales of the book help to maintain www.ExceptionalNurse.com.
Photos courtesy of www.ExceptionalNurse.com.