Refrigerator Nursing

Our theme this week in the Guided Autobiography class I am teaching, is “My Life’s Work.” It’s an exploration of, among other things, how we got into our life’s work and who influenced us along the way.

Here’s my story:

I devoted a little over half my life to nursing. If I’m really honest, “devoted” is too strong a word. A better description is that I worked as a nurse doing what was known as “refrigerator nursing.” In other words, I worked to keep food on the table with no particular thought to any sort of career path. My real career, my passion, was wrapped up in being a mother.

Having a job, and to be honest it probably could have been any sort of job, made me a better mother. It prevented me from being a helicopter parent, continually hovering over my daughter, an only child. Pam, my daughter, may argue that I still hovered, but working kept me from being a full-blown Piasecki H-21 Workhorse/Shawnee helicopter – look it up.

Shawnee helicopter

Bill and I made the decision to have only one child, so I knew this experience was my one chance at motherhood, and I wanted to enjoy every minute of it. That meant planning birthday parties and holidays and trips and opportunities to provide Pam a loving, exciting, fun-filled childhood. To this day, she tells stories about hesitating to mention a passing interest in anything – dance, guitar, swimming, you name it – knowing she would surely be enrolled in a class regarding that passing interest for at least two weeks the following summer. Okay, so maybe I wasn’t a Workhorse/Shawnee helicopter, but it’s possible I was a Mosquito XE Turbine Personal helicopter – look it up.

Personal Helicopter

Working part time also allowed me to be available for those moments when things didn’t go well, like between the ages of 13 and 15 when drama and devastation reign; no one asked her to the dance, her friends all “turned” on her, the love of her life started dating her best friend – those kinds of things.

From the time Pam was 10 months old until she graduated from high school I continued to work part time at whatever nursing job was available. When she graduated in 1992, she moved to what felt like the other side of the world, but in fact was CU Boulder, 45 minutes from our front door to her’s.

That same summer my best friend, Sandy, announced she and her family were moving to California. Sandy and I had bonded while working on the surgical floor at Poudre Valley Hospital in Fort Collins. She was my mentor being much more focused on her career than I was. She went back to school to get her BSN while working fulltime. She worked her way through the hospital’s system which gave nurses an avenue for advancement while allowing them to remain at the bedside. Throughout her journey, she encouraged me to join her, and I did. So, when she left the surgical unit to begin a career in the outpatient wound care clinic, I quickly followed.

Then, one spring day she told me she and her family were moving to California. “When?” I asked thinking perhaps it was a long term goal and would occur in maybe 5 or 10 years.

“In August,” she responded.

Still not getting it, I asked, “But what year?”

She looked me in the eye, “This year – in three months.”

I tried to be happy for her. I really did, but when someone you adore pulls the rug out from under you it takes awhile to recover.

One month after she moved away, I got a phone call at 10:00 at night, never a good omen. It was the Director of our department. Our head nurse had died in a tragic accident at her home. That’s the moment my years as a refrigerator nurse came to screeching halt.

They asked me to step into my boss’s role while they searched for a replacement. That replacement ended up being me. It became a significant branching point in my life – from working to keep food on the table to working towards career goals which led me at long last to finishing my degree. I then went on to attain my certification wound care nursing.  I also took every management class the hospital had to offer. I turned all that energy that had been focused on Pam and placed it on my career, working to become the best nurse and leader I knew how to be.

Looking back I realize that what I thought of as Sandy abandoning me was actually a blessing. She had mirrored for me how to expect the very best from myself as a nurse. Had she never left I may never have internalized those lessons.

My life’s work has changed over time, and yet remained the same – giving my best at whatever lies before me whether it’s parenting, nursing or writing. It’s a never-ending exciting journey.

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