First a Nurse

Family Ministry wasn’t my first career. I earned my Bachelor of Science in Nursing degree from St. Olaf College then worked as a Registered Nurse for fifteen years.

My first nursing job was in my home town in Minnesota. I worked on a Labor/Delivery/Nursery unit, and it was exciting to help bring new life into the world and care for the newborns until they went home. I remember a father who fainted in the delivery room, came to, and then fainted again. My most exhilarating memory was when the doctor didn’t make it to the hospital until after I had already helped deliver a baby. It didn’t seem fair to me at the time that he could come in after all was done, sign the birth certificate, and collect the big paycheck.

After a couple of years, wanderlust struck, and I sought adventure (and warm winters) outside of rural Minnesota. I saw a classified ad in a nursing magazine for a job at St. Thomas Hospital in the U.S. Virgin Islands. I didn’t know anything about the U.S. Virgin Islands. I didn’t even know where the islands were, and I’d never talked to anyone who had vacationed there. This was before Internet, so I went to the public library and read as much as I could about the territory. When I discovered that the Caribbean islands were beautiful (as well as warm), I mailed a job application, interviewed by phone, and soon I was hired and on my way!

I sold almost everything I owned, packed two suitcases and my guitar, and set off for a place where I knew no one. I think back and wonder how my parents felt about my move. I didn’t know how long I’d be gone or when I would see them next. In the days before cell phones, email, or social media, we knew our communication would rely on letters and an occasional long distance phone call. But they didn’t try to talk me out of going or make me feel guilty for leaving. Thanks, Mom and Dad. I wish I had been that cool when my daughter left for the Peace Corps last year.

Going away party at my parents’ house

My first assignment in St. Thomas was on a Labor and Delivery unit where babies were delivered by midwives. The laboring mother I remember most vividly is the one who cried–I mean really cried–because she was going to miss “The Young and the Restless” on TV that day. Wow. I worried that maybe she wasn’t really ready for the sacrifice it takes to be a parent.

For the next several years, I was the only Registered Nurse in charge of a Medical-Surgical unit with 60 patients. We improvised a lot and did what we could with limited supplies. I remember using a patient’s clean sock to give a bath when there were not enough washcloths. I also remember an old man with bilateral below the knee amputations who was blind as a result of diabetes. We suspect he starved to death because his caretaker ate his meals instead of feeding him. There were patients with psychiatric diagnoses or AIDS. Occasionally some came with shackles and police guards. It was grueling and exhausting work.

In spite of the demands of my regular shift, I often worked overtime in a hyperbaric chamber, treating SCUBA divers who had the Bends. It was cramped, loud, hot, and dangerous, but I was young and felt invincible. Plus I could use the money.

Ready for a patient in the hyperbaric chamber

St. Thomas Hospital, like the rest of the territory, suffered catastrophic damage during Hurricane Hugo. The U.S. National Guard set up DEPMEDS (deployable medical systems) on the grass and stayed for almost a year as parts of the hospital were rebuilt.

After Hurricane Hugo

After a one-year job in Florida, I returned to St. Thomas and worked with an orthopedic surgeon at his office near the cruise ship docks. The surgeon was buddies with most of the cruise ship doctors, so every once in awhile we’d be invited aboard a ship for drinks at lunch time. After a rum punch or two, we’d head back to the office and set fractures. Hmm.

Charlotte Amalie, St. Thomas

I decided to move back to the states after eight years on the island, but not before taking a 30-day island hopping adventure throughout the Caribbean.

I settled in Texas and began working on an oncology unit where we did clinical trials and delivered experimental chemotherapy to patients who had failed standard cancer treatment. I remember feeling enraged when elderly, end-stage cancer patients underwent painful diagnostic procedures, especially if treatment options would not extend or improve the quality of their lives. Compassion for families, dealing with grief, listening, and allowing death with dignity were important parts of nursing care.

When our first daughter was born, I tried to balance work with raising an infant by working two nights a week, sometimes catching a short nap when my husband got home in the evening. I went without sleep, drank way too much coffee, and miscarried two pregnancies during that year. That’s when I decided to become a stay-at-home mom. For the next ten years I raised three daughters before beginning my next career in Children’s and Family Ministry at my church.

I had many awesome adventures during fifteen years as a Registered Nurse, and those experiences helped shape who I am today. I’m still glad I chose Nursing as a major and dedicated my young adult life to that important profession.

High schoolers, college students, and young adults– It’s very likely you will change majors or careers (probably more than once). Study what interests you. Learn all you can. Keep moving forward. Seek adventure. Keep your eyes open. Along the way you may discover another opportunity to use your strengths, gifts, and life experiences. I hope you enjoy the journey.

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