I remember my last code.
You know how it goes: it was 7:00 a.m., and I was charting as if my own life depended on it. The gray light of early morning oozed through the curtained windows. All was quiet, except for the clacking of the keys. My mouth tasted of too strong coffee, yet my eyelids dropped. It was almost time to go.

That was when I heard the snoring. It was a sound I hadn’t heard before. The sound has a rolling, gagging quality to it. I jumped to my sore feet and listened like a hunting dog for where the sound originated.

There it was. There!

I ran into the patient’s room, took one look from the doorway and knew he was dying. His mouth hung open in a large “O,” and his tongue spilled out of his powdered blue mouth. I yelled for help and plunged into the job of securing the airway.

It was just like any other code, really. I’m not sure when I started to feel uncomfortable. My hands shook, and something deep inside me trembled. I had told myself since my last dance with my mental illness that I wouldn’t get myself into stressful situations—something absolutely impossible for a floor nurse.

The charge nurse was there, and I felt the patient was safe with her. Clearly, he wasn’t safe with me. I told her that I couldn’t be in there anymore, and I left.

My manager approached me not unkindly and told me to go back in. I told her I couldn’t. I honestly would have stood like a statue had I tried.

It was a matter of a few weeks before they fired me, and with good reason considering how I acted. Did I even deserve to be called nurse after all that happened in my struggle to be a good nurse?

In other words, who am I now?

I honestly didn’t grow up wanting to be a nurse. I wanted to be a writer, but I was told that wasn’t a path that would lead to a good life. So, I abandoned it. Instead of facing my passion for writing, I furtively scratched out short stories in the far reaches of my room. All I ever wanted to do was write.

Life twisted. It turned tortuously, and I found myself needing a job. I liked medicine. In fact, that was what my mother wanted me to pursue—and what she had wished she had pursued. Nursing seemed like an obvious path for me. I love helping people. I am fascinated by the human body. I was smart enough for the curriculum. I liked it but didn’t love it like some of my classmates.

I will brag and say I graduated second in my class. Through nursing school, I did develop a love for it. I could help people so much more with the knowledge I had gained. I knew things and had seen things that made me powerful. Medical knowledge is immensely powerful.

I was proud to say that I was a nurse. I felt a fellowship with the hardworking men and women around me. I was amazed at how good they were, how it felt to work as a team. I loved helping out with codes and being on the frontlines. I grew to love being a nurse, and I took part of my identity from this fact.

So, what went wrong?

On some deep level, I knew my emotions were not in my control all the time. I would have racing thoughts about the simplest things. I would worry that something terrible would happen. Very often, I could not manage the strength to get out of bed and to be a part of life. I had known this since I was a teenager, but I didn’t want anyone to call me crazy.

I still functioned well as a nurse: respected, well liked with a great reputation. My feelings only got worse as I continued to work, though. The stress of nursing weighed down on me, the struggle to get through a shift. I took a leave, and I was finally diagnosed—and treated for—bipolar disorder.

It seemed liked a downward spiral, though. I would get better only when I didn’t work. And I wanted to work!  I had worked so hard and given up so much for the privilege to call myself nurse.

It all went away, and that made me incredibly sad. In that state and in that situation, I was not safe for patients. I understand that and thank those who removed me.

I work as a practice administrator in a psychiatrist’s office now. My struggles with mental illness allow me to help those who are suffering or maybe are at a part of the journey that I recognize. I write, too, as you may have noticed. Since I lost my job, I’ve been using my skills in both nursing and writing to make a way for myself and my family.

But I don’t feel like a nurse anymore. I don’t feel a part of that fellowship. I don’t remember drug names, and I can’t tell you what lab values mean. I worked so hard for entry into this club, and I feel on the outs. I feel disconnected with an identity I once held dear.

I told my mother-in-law about missing nursing. She’s a positive woman, always upbeat. Certainly not like me!  Her words were simple, though I doubt she understood the complexity of the situation.

“Lynda,” she said, “you are more than a nurse now. Other people are just nurses.”

I will admit that it still stings, despite my mother-in-law’s wisdom. On my journey, I became a nurse, but as that journey continued, I found that I could be so much more, all the parts of me. And maybe, through that journey to becoming a nurse, I can help someone in their journey—whatever it maybe.

To me, that’s all that ever really mattered.

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Lynda Lampert, RN

Lynda Lampert, RN, has worked medical-surgical, telemetry, and intensive care units in her career. She has been freelancing for five years and lives in western Pennsylvania with her family and pets.

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