What Does Rappelling Down a Canyon Wall Have to Do With Nursing?

Alice Facente, a clinical educator in Connecticut, has published two Reflections essays in AJN in the past year: “The Dirtiest House in Town” and “At Her Mercy.”  Her last post on this blog can be found here.

The author rappelling down a canyon wall.

We just returned home from Moab, Utah, where our 20-something son lives and works. His 50-something parents decided to visit him—we hadn’t seen him in many months. He earns his living as a mountain guide, leading people on extreme mountain-climbing adventures.

We just wanted to see him, not fulfill any fantasies of becoming daredevils. But we were game to see what he did for a living. He took us on a three-mile hike through incredibly gorgeous canyons and rock formations. It was strenuous, but we were able to keep up. When we came to the edge of a cliff, with the bottom of the canyon “only 100 feet down” or so, our son took off his bulging backpack—which we’d mistakenly assumed was full of snacks—and pulled out harnesses, ropes, helmets, and gloves. He then told us there was no way down except to rappel.

Did I mention I am afraid of heights? Since my son was well aware of my (very reasonable) fears, he had neglected to tell us his plans. It took a little coaching and a lot of coaxing, but he calmly talked us down that first mountain cliff—rappelling for the first time ever. My husband went first, and then it was my turn. I was terrified at first, but halfway down a feeling of calm settled over me. If I was going to die, this was after all a pretty beautiful place.

This was how much I trusted my son—to hang off the side of a mountain while he belayed me. It was exhilarating. When I reached the bottom of the canyon, I unharnessed myself and kissed the ground.

The experience made me thoughtful. As we continued the hike on more level ground, I reflected that being in the nursing profession for over 30 years has yielded similar experiences. There have been some incredible highs—such as when I followed my intuition in a home care case and reported some seemingly innocuous yet troubling symptoms, an act that ultimately led to the diagnosis of bilateral pulmonary emboli. Or witnessing the joy on the face of a young woman newly diagnosed with diabetes when she successfully self-injected her life-saving insulin for the first time.

And then there have been some incredible lows—such as the helpless feeling when a patient died in the emergency room from a self-inflicted gunshot wound, or when a baby was born with unexpected, severe anomalies that resulted in death within hours.

Standing on the edge of that cliff, I felt like I do when starting a shift faced with an overwhelming number of assessments and interventions to complete on a too-large patient assignment. Every nurse has great stories to tell—about facing seemingly insurmountable tasks and taking them foothold by foothold. And, sometimes with the help of a belaying mentor or trusted friend, the nurse persists and gets safely “down that mountain.”

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2016-11-21T13:15:00+00:00 November 15th, 2010|career, nursing perspective|3 Comments
Senior editor/social media strategy, American Journal of Nursing, and editor of AJN Off the Charts.


  1. Peggy November 17, 2010 at 11:59 am

    This post made me smile and nod my head. I believe we all grow by pushing past the fears that may hold us back in many situations. In nursing, I too have felt almost paralyzed by an overwhelming shift assignment or situation, but with knowledge, experience, and some inner strength have “made it to the floor of the canyon” time and again. Thanks for the wonderful post!

  2. barbaraglickstein November 17, 2010 at 7:26 am

    What an exciting read and thoughtful post about taking new risks, knowing you can face uncertainty with your trust of others and yourself, with a sense of adventure. Relating it to her life as a nurse was beautifully done.

  3. Duncan McGonagle,RN November 15, 2010 at 5:49 pm

    Loved it! It is truly God’s country and I know exactly how you felt being there and experiencing God’s work, close up. Keep writing.

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