Like the groan of a distant train at three a.m. the sound moves farther and farther away. The metal crash cart is clanging down the hall. Maybe I am in a movie. “This can’t be happening.” My body runs into Room 6 for the umpteenth time. I am exhausted from all of it. “One and two and three and four and five and breathe … One and two and three and four and five and breathe … “
As the rest of the code team arrives I begin to look for an I.V. on a lifeless limb, but my mind is paralyzed with one thought. At least the other nurses can’t see it. “Just one more bedpan, one more cardiac arrest, one more patient light and I am out of here.” Everything moves in slow motion and my feet are heavy. Someone shouts, “Stand back!” The patient is defibrillated two more times. A slow rhythm emerges on the screen, and the quiet beep of the monitor becomes more and more regular. The code team finishes their paper work and the resident sits in the corner chair ordering more tests. It looks like everything has returned to normal.
But I knew better. “Just one more…” How could I think this way? Nothing had prepared me for this disconnect. Not my anatomy class, or biology or even psychology class. The mantra of nursing, Maslow’s hierarchy of needs – they all left me clueless. I knew nursing was hard work, but no one ever told me about the kind of pain I now was feeling.
The next day I called my nursing supervisor. I soon found myself in different types of group therapy, followed later by personal counseling. I prayed as best I could. Along the way I thought, “Maybe I am not meant to be a nurse. Maybe I don’t have the skills or talent to do the job.” I started to look for college classes thinking I could study English, art or literature and maybe teach. Then through a “chance” encounter, I met Dr. Thomas Sullivan, a philosophy professor at the University of St. Thomas. He helped start a program on campus in which parents of full-time students can enroll in undergraduate courses with no tuition charge. My daughter, Tracy, was starting St. Thomas the following fall, so I excitedly signed on as well.
My first class, taught by Dr. Mary Reichardt, was “Literature from a Christian Perspective.” Even though it was a literature class, it was the beginning of a real connection between my faith, my family and my work. I no longer felt incoherent. There was no disconnect, no blaming my womanhood, my family or my parents. Instead there was a real freshness and an almost touchable search for truth. I began to see the same truth over and over, as professor after professor unraveled the wonder and mystery ofhuman nature and life. And, for the first time, I was asked to reflect critically and comprehensively, to look not only at my immediate situation, but at the whole of it.
As I continued taking classes in philosophy, theology, art and history, a litany of questions emerged as they related to my vocation. What does it really mean to be a nurse? How can I continue in a system that is at times morally and ethically schizophrenic? What is it that tethers the ethics of nursing and medicine? Can it really be that one gets to make it up on the go? What does it mean to suffer? How can onebe joyful in the midst of profound suffering? Even though I had attended Catholic schools all my life I had not really understood the gift of the Incarnation, a gift freely given; a gift undeserved that cannot be repaid. In my search for understanding I began to see suffering and pain, true joy and happiness in a different light. I began to understand true despair and true hope from our Christian perspective, that is, fromthe Cross.
Flannery O’Connor, one of my favorite authors, said sometimes grace is violent. But for the grace of God, this would be the drama of one more burnt out nurse. What I lacked during the “Dr. Blue in Room 6” episode was an understanding of grace. Yet, like someone who could not see very well, Catholic Studies gave me new vision and a new heart, along with the courage of conviction to really live the Gospel. That conviction led me to complete my undergraduate degree in philosophy and Catholic Studies and then, last fall, to enroll in the Master of Arts in Catholic Studies program, with an emphasis in medical ethics.
It also led to the formation of Curatio, a new apostolate for health care professionals. Our apostolate is primarily to bring Catholics in the health care professions to a closer relationship with Jesus Christ, the Divine Physician, as we are centered on the liturgy of the Mass. With that in mind, the motto for Curatio is “Healing from the Heart of Christ,” in Latin, Curatio Ex Corde Christi. We hope with the Lord’s help to live the Gospel near the Cross and to understand love and truth to restore sacred dignity and moral autonomy to our profession. Only by restoring truth and humility to health care can we, day after day, see the patient as Christ and ourselves as humble instruments of healing.
Catholic Studies is neither a sentimental nor a holier-than-thou program. It is for the stouthearted and those who are in search of the truth. The violence of grace led me to the Catholic Studies program, and the Catholic Studies program helped me discover what it means to be truly human and to be Catholic in the fullest sense of the word. In reflecting on my journey and the gift of my Catholic Studies education, I think of the words of Dr. Chris Thompson, my moral theology professor, who said, “One can never underestimate the value of serendipity when it comes to learning.” He’s got that right.