Julianna Paradisi, RN, OCN, is an oncology nurse navigator and writes a monthly post for this blog.
The alarm clock rang noisily. I wasn’t ready to surrender the cozy cocoon of my bed and venture into the emotional turbulence of this particular day: The 14th anniversary of 9/11.
The week leading up to it was rough. My stepfather had quadruple coronary bypass surgery in another city. Although it was successful, and his children were there to help and support my mother, I’ve felt guilty for not being there myself, because I’m the nurse in the family, and I feel responsible for every medical problem that arises for the ones I love—even if I’m not really needed.
Besides this, at work we’re in one of those cycles where every patient gets bad news: The cancer has invaded the borders of another organ, or the patient is incredibly young for the diagnosis that’s been received. Six months into my career as an oncology nurse navigator, I realize the emotional toll from secondary trauma is often more related to a previous job as a pediatric intensive care nurse than that of my more recent position as an oncology infusion nurse.
Because of all this, I decided to minimize my media exposure to the trauma of 9/11 this year. I stayed off of Facebook, and instead of watching the morning news I listened to Lyle Lovett croon the delightfully absurd lyric, “Penguins are so sensitive to my needs.”
It almost worked, but I share an office with a colleague who lived in the New York area at the time of the attacks. When she brought up 9/11, I asked her about it; she told me her experience, and my heart broke open. Then I told her how in 2001, here in Portland, Oregon, we watched the horror on TV with the rest of the world. But I also worked in an office at a hospital, where a colleague started a flurry of emails, explaining that her friends’ son worked in Two World Trade Center and was missing. His father had seen the first tower attacked on TV. He called his son, who answered the phone from his work cubicle, unaware of the disaster outside.
“Get out of the building, it’s not safe,” his father ordered. “Get out now!” He hung up, and that was the last he’d heard from his son. My colleague’s emails asked for prayers and positive energy for her friends and their son.
Late in the afternoon, we learned that her friends’ son had called. He’d escaped before the second tower was attacked. Because of his father’s warning, he had persuaded the other people in his department to flee with him. All of them were safe.
In telling the story, the emotion from 14 years ago flooded forward, as fresh and raw as it was back then.
My colleague and I talked some more, until our words were spent. Then we went to work contacting cancer patients, helping them through their personal crises.
At the end of the day, I felt weary, empty.
On my way home, I saw a tall, thin man, more hippie than hipster, walking down the street. His stork-like gait and mid-back-length ponytail caught my eye, but it was the bouquet of flowers he carried that held my imagination. He was bringing someone flowers: a visual expression of love on this day of sorrow.
It was only a small gesture, but it reminded me why I’m a nurse.