By Brianne R. Fitzgerald RN, MSN, NP, MPH
Winter in Boston is long and dark. The Redline breaks down, folks complain about the weather and we make do. This winter I was part of the huddling hoards on the platform at Andrew trying to get home at night. I was a regular at Dunkin Donuts (ooops cross out donuts) in Andrew Square, I trudged Methadone Mile to see patients at the detox on Mass Ave, wandered by the empty lot at Old Colony and Dorchester Street on my way to my job at Gavin Foundation and tried to remain grounded with regular yoga at a Bikram studio. I practiced gratitude; I had several great jobs and my health. I was tired and attributed this to “old age” and New England winters.
In the matter of six hours on a day I decided to see my primary care physician for a check up. I was told that my labs had come back (who knew that lab values can be run within 1 hour of a blood draw) and that I had some critical lab levels that necessitated I go to the emergency department and “no, it could not wait until tomorrow.” I arrived at the Beth Israel ED was hustled into a private room, had a bone marrow biopsy and was then hustled off to Feldberg 7 where this journey begins. Acute myeloid leukemia is the diagnosis and in a split second I transitioned from a provider to a patient, a 180-degree leap in less than 24 hours. In many ways I think that I have been prepping for this adventure all my life. I have been a runner and slogged my way up Heartbreak hill on several occasions, I have hiked the Camino de Santiago de Compostela twice as a solo traveler and most importantly my life work in the addictions has taught me to live a day at a time with acceptance and gratitude. I recognize that all these life experiences are hard won and came through lots of trial and error. That is one of the gifts of life. You get do overs and try agains if you are willing to take the risks associated with the unknown. Today I sit with a new opportunity to take yet another road less traveled. I am always up for the road less traveled and so it begins!
When Life Serves You Lemons….
At one time or another we all have hard days. During those days it may feel like the sun no longer shines for us. The world is not going to hell, our body feels heavy and tired and does not want to move and emotionally we feel lost with no way out. Those days are just a test and do not last forever. Use your coping skills and do not give up.
Whether it be addiction or leukemia those days will come, days when hiking the Blue Hills is available and days when you are so sick and scared you wonder how to get through it. I am living this now and all the bromides I proffered to patients along the trail of life I must diligently practice or face the consequences. I use the term leaning into the fear, the illness the day. Nothing lasts forever, the good days or the bad. Leaning in gives me the semblance of my need to control. The paradox of leaning in allows me to let go and let God. Who knew that recovery from the fear could be so easy? Easy is a relative term, I have learned through trial and error much like the practice of Tai Chi that to master the problem one must put it off balance. The way we do it in addiction is to recognize that addiction is a formidable foe, much like leukemia. To hit it head on, beat it, white knuckle it, rail against it is wasted energy. The concepts of Tai Chi involve relaxation and breathing to generate health, longevity and internal strength and power. The goal is putting the body and the mind in harmony. Breath is the key and the one thing that we all can do to manage, reduce our struggle and enhance our life experiences. My 6-year-old granddaughter is taught breathe in the good air and blow out the candles when she faces a problem in kindergarten. Attending to the little things is a practice that prepares us to be better able to address the big things like recovery.
Finding joy on the path to recovery is essential to the process. For me it is never saying no to someone who wishes to make a visit, even when I am not feeling my best. Human connection is key. In recovery from addiction one of the vital aspects of 12-step is the role that socialization plays; setting up before the meeting, the coffee breaks and for many the time after meetings when folks gather to drink coffee, eat burgers and talk sports, girls, boys and work. One of the joys of this adventure for me was a visit to the aptly named Love and Mercy Salon where several of my grandchildren cheered as I closed my eyes tightly as my locks were shorn in anticipation for some of the bumps anticipated on the is journey.
The Transition: Nurse to Patient
All of the time I have hustled into a hospital to see a patient, all of times I have entered the hospital as a nurse rushing to make my shift, the times that I have visited fr iends and family who were hospitalized never prepared me for the moment when I would trade places and be the patient. My brushes with a hospitalization have been infrequent; 4 labor and delivery and 1 admission nearly 40 years ago for an illness that I was sure I could beat as I was young and invincible. Since March 4, 2019 I have taken more pills that I could ever have imagined, had more tests, received multiple units of blood and been cared for by some of the most brilliant and compassionate nurses I have ever imagined. The very idea that I have needed and received so many units of blood is thought provoking to me. I have worked in places where there is no blood bank and some of those places are not all in the third world. What a gift to be in Boston where the greatest minds in science and clinical care are all within the city limits. You can’t go wrong regardless of hospital that you choose here in Boston as they all work together, and you are universally guaranteed state of the art care. People from all over the world flock to our medical centers for care unavailable in their home countries.
The Rolling Stones in their 1969 song “You Can’t Always Get What You Want” rings true then and now. The idea that one might get what they need appears lost on many of the youth today. The news is filled with stories like Varsity Blues which on the surface defies the words of this song. Parents seem at a loss to deny their children anything. They wearily give up their cell phones to their little ones rather than sing a refrain from this classic song to them as way to distract and even engage them. On a personal note I had planned to walk my third Camino in September 2019. My training has not been for naught as I walk the unit oval on Feldberg 7. I am clocking 3 miles a day and The Camino has come to me as I begin to adjust to my new role as a patient. The role is not who I am it is just a part of the process. As we are all given labels; student, parent, addict it is important not to cling to tightly to the current role we see ourselves in as noted in an earlier column, life does turn quickly and without warning sometimes. I reflect on the excuse that folks with addiction issues are hampered by the stigma associated with this disorder. If one looks around, we can see that almost all of us have a direct association with addiction and therefore they are us and we by denying this contribute to the shame that in many ways we all carry. I am learning to lean into the current role I am in. Asking for help and being vulnerable is not my strong suite. I am a risk taker and control freak. The table have turned and for me to move through this experience I must relinquish an old skill set and learn some new strategies. So, it is with addiction; to move through this illness one must let go of old ways of being, risk engaging with others unlike themselves, become somewhat humble, nurture a flame of hope that all things come back to love and that each of us is loved.