Wednesday, February 12, 2014

Living with a Purpose

What do you live for? When you wake up each morning, what are your thoughts directed towards? When you reflect on your week, what did you spend the most hours doing and to what avail?

So many of us live our mundane lives and go to our lackluster jobs to only return to our homes and rest so we have energy to do the same thing the next day. We allow those around us and society to determine what we do and how we live. We chain ourselves to a notion of what we should be, based on what the media dictates. It allows us a sense of security because we "fit in" and have a role. 

The bigger question is, what is the point of your individual life? Do you have a specific purpose and if so, how do you find it?

William Wilberforce is a name unknown to many but one that represents a man who went from living for himself to changing the mind of the British Empire in regards to slavery. Elected into Parliament at an early age, Wilberforce described his early years as his having done "Nothing to any purpose. My own distinction was my darling object." Wilberforce began to reflect on his life and he began to realize the opportunity he had to make a difference. He became absorbed with the issue of slavery. 

Slavery became a profitable industry for the British Empire, particularly during the 1700's. According to the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade Database 12.5 million Africans were shipped to the New World. Slavery was second nature to the British and the prevailing mindset was that slaves were less than human. This allowed slave-owners to feel justification.

Wilberforce tackled this challenge and presented Bills to Parliament opposing slave trade. Initially all twelve bills were blocked. He continued to rewrite and propose bills of Abolition and in 1791, 1792, 1793, 1797, 1798, 1799, 1804, and 1805 his propositions were again blocked. People saw the slave trade as extremely profitable and Wilberforce's attempts to change the ideas of a nation were not well received. It was not until 1808 that Parliament passed the first act to outlaw slave trade. As you know, it was not until 1863 that America followed suite with the Emancipation Proclamation.

I tell this story, not so you can "oooh" and "aaah" over another famous person. Wilberforce was not that. Think of him as "Will" or "Kelly or you. He was an ordinary person who decided that normal and average were not good enough. He saw a travesty and he set out to fix it. He failed so many times, but he knew what was right and he stood up for what he believed. 

Sir Francis Bacon said, "It is a sad fate for a man to die too well known to everybody else and still unknown to himself." Wilberforce admitted that he didn't know who he was or what his purpose was, but he set out to find it. This is what I encourage you to do. Life is full of opportunity. Living in America (the land of opportunity) gives me no excuse. There are problems all around us. The question is are we brave enough to step out of our comfort zone and do something about them? Are we willing to do the uncomfortable? Are we willing to make a difference in the world?

I encourage you today to find your purpose in life. Although I am not saying your life purpose will be laid out for you, I do believe we can find the purpose for each day that is towards a greater good. For me, my relationship with God allows me to understand my purpose. I am a traveling nurse. Where I will live next year is unknown. I could still live here or I could be in Malaysia. It is not for me to necessarily know my future, but to know that I am where I am supposed to be at this moment. It takes a lot of faith to find your purpose the way I do, but God has never let me down. The way I figure, if He can successfully design an entire universe and keep it running for this long, He probably has a pretty good idea of what I should do with my life. Find your purpose!

Friday, February 7, 2014

The Eyes of Cancer

“Seriously? Another young, male patient?? Lynn, I thought we talked about this-I’ll take anything tonight but the young ones-I can’t put up with any more whining tonight!!” I was half joking with our charge nurse, but definitely half serious. It had been a full night of putting up with the grown momma’s boys. I had spoon fed a fully capable adult male, “hid” an IV with flesh-toned tape and a pile of blankets on another, and run back and forth for multiple meals on a guy who was “starving to death” and “hadn’t eaten for AT LEAST two hours!!!”. These were only the examples I mention. The unnecessary drama of the ER was starting to get to me and because it happened to be with a similar age group and gender, I was attempting to stereotype and boycott for the rest of the shift.
The report from the triage nurse came. “No, I think this one is really sick. He looks pretty terrible. Nausea and stomach pain.” I had walked by triage earlier and seen an elderly gentleman, but none that fit the description. 
One horrible trait of ER nurses is that we are rarely surprised. We see an exceptional amount of the absurd and extreme of the medical world. As I opened the patient chart to get a bit of history on him, I was shocked to see several different cancers listed in his current history. The triage note mentioned a recent end to his current chemotherapy treatment and a bout of nausea and severe pain that rendered him incapable of keeping anything down.

As I entered the patient’s room, my automatic self-control (a similar concept to all-wheel drive) kicked in. I held back a gasp. I had skimmed the chart and pictured a twenty-something year old with a little stomach pain. In my mind's eye he was a thick, strapping Marine with a little stomach bug that I would fix with a little zofran. He might whine a little if I flashed a needle, but I would call his bluff and question his "Marine card" rendering him defenseless and forced to suck it up.
There was one problem. That was what I imagined. I am a firm believer that the eyes are the window to the soul. When I speak to a patient I listen to their eyes more than anything. I chart what their eyes do when they speak with their mouth. Sometimes I struggle to hear the words of their mouth over the voice of their eyes. This man's eyes told such a story. They were deep and sunken like that of a skull. They were a steel green with a haze over them-as if the chemo had left a residue of pollution. These were eyes only a few years older than mine, yet they told the story of an entire lifetime crammed into twenty-something years. I realized, this was the gentleman from the waiting room. 
As he spoke, the thinness of his face was accentuated as his mouth opened and stretched the haggard and poisoned skin across his face. That is what chemo does. It poisons your body as it tries to kill the cancer. The goal is to kill the cancer before it kills the person-then stop the treatment and try to revive the person. Those patients undergoing repeated treatments become living corpses. As I questioned him, I wondered as it seemed almost painful for him to speak. He writhed in pain-something he was used to but was now experiencing in a new place and for a new reason. 
My assessment includes a history and a physical. The history. How did someone so young get three different types of cancer? He was a Marine. One of the most fierce of his bunch. Who knows if he exaggerated, but his strong features lead me to believe him. He spoke with authority. He deployed to serve his country. He returned safely and was deployed again. The second deployment got him. He returned to his beautiful wife and family-alive and happy to be home. He began having horrible symptoms-GI like many of the troops. He assumed it was a intestinal bug that he had heard about. After extensive testing, the doctors discovered cancer in three major organs. He immediately began treatments and surgeries. Large amounts of his intestines were removed and he now wore a bag. Things he once looked forward to in life like eating were now a chore and something to be dreaded. Did he regret serving? No. He was simply learning to accept a much different life and struggling to make it "ok" in his mind.
Something I will always love about the ER is how it allows me to see people "In the raw". People don't often come here dressed up for the occasion, displaying a facade, and parading around trying to impress. No, often they are at their absolute worse. As pure as human nature can get. They are hurting or feeling helpless over some disease or ailment. They are sometimes dying. The biggest and baddest of men and the fragile great-aunts from the nursing home find themselves separated by a wall or curtain and both vying for your attention and help. I love the struggle of treating every patient equally. I love playing the "nurse" card and removing stigmas like clothing by giving everyone the same, fashionable gown. The playing field in the ER is supposed to be level and based on acuity alone.

To return to the story of the patient, I wish I could continue it with a triumphant recovery. While it is certainly possible, the chances are very slim. The disease has done its damage and continues to riddle what is left of him with more distruction. Why him? Why someone so young who was trying to do the right thing? Why the one who is out serving his country instead of dealing drugs or engaging in other illegal activity?

I learned long ago to leave the decisions of creation to the Creator. Only He can see the entire picture. In some way, He will get the glory out of our lives. Our job is simply to live them to the fullest for His glory. Take each day in stride with the knowledge that if we are doing what He would have us to do, He will take care of us. He gives the toughest battles to the strongest people-that I truly believe.

Does that mean I no longer question God? Not in the least. As I begin to think about the "Why's" of life, I begin to realize how little I and we as humans know about life. When we can successfully build a human being from absolutely nothing, we will earn the right to question our Master Creator. Until then, He can see the big picture and gets the responsibility of understanding all. Our job is to have the faith of a child. It is not ignorant-it does ask questions, but it is ultimately trusting and humble.

Below are included some of my favorite photos from the last six months. Photos of "people in the raw". Photos of a moment captured where there was an effortless emotion caught on camera. The children of an Ethiopian school, thrilled at the foreigners who brought bubbles and candy along with their medicine and love. The sweaty and sandy volleyball team who came from out of town and won a championship. A mid-laugh snapshot that will forever be an inside joke. A special moment shared between a father and a son over dinner. A new relationship and the opportunity to celebrate the excitement of the "new-ness" over a birthday. A silly face that didn't realize she was on camera. They are people, humans that are not perfect but living a life and sharing moments that they enjoy perfectly. Part of this is a story, part is a lesson, and part is an encouragement to live your life fully and completely-not really perfect but perfectly real!

Monday, February 3, 2014

Live Like a Fighter Pilot

"Pick up room eighteen from ultrasound". I'm the nurse in rooms 5-8 but nothing crazy is going on and knowing that the other nurse is tied up with a sick patient, I slip over to ultrasound to grab the patient. As I approach the elderly gentleman in the wheelchair, he hugs the piles of blankets closer and greets me with a wry smile and a sparkle in his crisp blue eyes. "Well, hello there little lady!" I introduce myself and begin wheeling him back to his room. With wheelchair parked at the bedside, we begin to unload the piles of blankets. Underneath the mound I discover a thin, elderly gentleman dressed in a suit. The collared shirt is yellowing and aged and the tie reveals it's age with faded wings. I complement his efforts at dressing himself so formally for a late-night ER trip. He points at the wings on his tie. "Do you know what those are, little lady??" I respond in the negative. He replies, "They are US Naval wings representing my time as a fighter pilot in the Navy." 

Actual photos from the Gentleman. No name is given and no photo credit will be given due to HIPPA.

As I am fascinated by flying, I immediately inquired about his service. His enthusiasm shone through his eyes and as he spoke of the war and the thrill of being a "hot-shot" flying ace, the years represented with age spots and wrinkles began to fade. He spoke of how fortunate he was to still be alive and how he would forever hold the American aviation engineers as far superior to the Japanese. He said, "I tell ya, I believe in the engineering of our planes. Sometimes you would see a Jap and you would just do a little 4 second squirt and they would just explode. It took more than that for ours to go down."

As he spoke, I wondered as to how much this man had seen. His view from the sky provided a front row seat to a real-time conflict and a fight for life and death. At 30,000 feet in the air, the things that mattered were much different. He could certainly spend his time thinking about what was going on at home, if his men liked him, what he was going to eat for dinner, etc. however, the reality was that if he failed to focus on the task at hand, none of that would matter.

Something else he shared that was a very real part of his life was knowing that each time he went up, he had to have his "stuff on the ground together". He had to be prepared to die at any time. This meant when he was on the ground, he lived each moment to make it count. A quote from the movie Act of Valor along this line says:
"That last night at home, you think about how you could have been a better dad, a better husband, that bedtime story you should of read or that anniversary you forgot. You don't expect your family to understand what you are doing. You just hope they understand you're doing it for them and when you get home you can pick up right where you left off."

Our lives for the most part are much different. We are not fighting for our lives in the sense of actively engaging in combat with deadly weapons and a vicious physical enemy. The unfortunate reality is that many of us allow our safety and freedom to cause us to slip into a comfortable coma of living for the next thrill or distraction. We don't need to prioritize extensively as long as we show up to class or work on time and make our boss/customer/teacher happy. We don't strive for doing our best and living intentionally because we don't have to.

Experiencing life in third-world countries always helps me re-align my priorities, but why can't I have the physical discipline to do it without leaving the country. We live in a country that is comfortable and undisciplined. Obesity rates are skyrocketing. Depression, divorce, and addictions are at an all-time high. From my limited life experience and what I have experienced in the ER, I believe it has a lot to do with our "comfortable coma". We shy away from the uncomfortable and tell ourselves "I am fine" or "I will do it when it's more convenient". I will state a known constant. Life is not easy. It can be incredibly fulfilling or it can be meaningless but it is not meant to be easy. If we are going to make the most of something that can be over in an instant, we must realize it is going to take self-discipline. Whether that is disciplining your eyes to not wander from your relationship or forcing your thoughts away from the fridge and getting out of the chair to go for a run, life is full of the need for self-discipline.

I am not saying this is easy, but if it were easy then it would not be as meaningful. Think about when you were a child and you earned some money. Then think about when someone just gave you money. The feelings attached to that money are very different. Your life is the same. It is valuable and it was given to you but with this valuable possession comes and incredible responsibility.

Today I encourage you to live your life to the fullest. Live each moment as if you were a fighter pilot, going up in the air very soon for what could be the last time. Love hard and passionately. Step out of your house and actually smell the air. Take time to smile at your neighbor. Truly listen to the concerns of another. Life is but a vapor that vanishes away. We get one shot. Will you make the most of it?

I end with a poem from Tecumseh,

So live your life that the fear of death can never enter your heart.
Trouble no one about their religion
Respect others in their view
And demand that they respect yours
Love your life, perfect your life, beautify all things in your life
Seek to make your life long and its purpose in the service of your people
Prepare a noble death song for the day when you go over the great divide
Always give a word or a sign of salute when meeting or passing a friend
Even a stranger when in a lonely place
Show respect to all people and grovel to none
When you arise in the morning give thanks for the food and for the joy of living
If you see no reason for giving thanks, the fault lies only in yourself
Abuse no one and nothing
For abuse turns the wise ones to fools and robs the spirit of its vision
When it comes your time to die
Be not like those whose hearts are filled with the fear of death
So that when their time comes
They weep and pray for a little more time
To live their lives over again in a different way
Sing your death song
And die like a hero going home