Brave Woman

Adventures of a future nurse-midwife

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Being Proactive (Meetup Part 1)

Posted by Lucille on January 3, 2014 at 12:30 PM Comments comments (0)

There is a prolonged suspense in these last terms, the calm before the giant question mark of next year. My recent experiences highlighted the need to view my gap year, not as a break, but as an exciting adventure and an opportunity to explore. I originally decided to concentrate all of my coursework into the first three years of college so that I could use my last year to study abroad teaching reproductive health in Senegal. Though that's no longer the plan (because of my relationship with Travis, but I'm not complaining in the slightest) it seems wise to approach my Portland gap year with the same careful planning, and whole-hearted acceptance that little will go according to plan, with which I would approach a gap year abroad.

Step 1: Make darn sure at least half my classes for spring term are interactive. It took asking my advisor to authorize course substitutions, but I think spring is set up to be a much better term.

Step 2: Look into local options for finding community and exploring extracurricular interests next year.

This brings me to the wonders of meetup.com.

If you haven't been to meetup.com, I highly recommend you check it out. (See, now it has the Lucille official seal of approval, so it must be cool.) It's a platform for people to start, find, and join local groups/gatherings based on common interests. And when I say common interest (at least for a big city like Portland), I mean almost anything you could possibly think of.

I made a list of every group that looked appealing and set about attending a meetup in each one. Because I chose a broad selection, most of the groups turned out not to be something I would want to join long-term for one reason or another, but that was the best part of this exercise. Walking open-minded into a group of strangers, knowing I likely would never see them again after that event, removed the pressure to be perceived well and let me focus on having a good time and helping others do the same. It provided some human contact during this long term, was a good way to explore groups and activities, and greatly defused the social anxiety I'd been building up. In short, a win-win all around. Being proactive: +1. Ten points to Gryffindor!

Just My Brain and I

Posted by Lucille on January 2, 2014 at 11:40 AM Comments comments (2)

Reflections on identity, isolation, and adulthood.

As graduation gets closer, the class schedule options get smaller. So when I registered for this term I was so happy to get all of the classes I needed that I didn't realize I had signed up for two 200+ students, memorization-based classes and two online classes. Although I learned a ton this term and genuinely enjoyed most of my courses, in combination, it was an incredibly isolating setup.

I spent a LOT of time by myself this term. More than I care to quantify. It wore me out. It made me wonder if I was going crazy. It was a more significant lesson than anything I learned in school, and it was transformational.

Unstructured time. Immeasurable, because we all know our perception of time has little to do with the clock. Time, and me. Drifting, thinking. An opportunity to take some time for reflection. Two weeks into this, I was ready to explode from the deafening silence of my brain.

Maddening. The harder I searched for an absolute truth, the deeper the messy web of exceptions seemed to spread. I couldn't find the answer. I didn't even remember the question. But I had a driving need to solve it, and the longer I couldn't solve it, the more frustrated and anxious I became. I was chasing down details too fast to realize I'd lost the big picture.

And then at other times perspective would hit me all at once, and I would be overwhelmed by my own smallness in the unimaginable expanse of the universe. Who am I without context? What objective evidence do I have that anything I do actually matters in the grand scheme of things? If the deadlines, relationships, and goals that give me structure now disappeared, would I just drift away into an abyss of unstructured time?

Days ran together a bit this term. I experimented with trying to make eye contact and say hello to the people in my classes, but I rarely got more than a mumbled response. Sometimes on the walk home I would walk a little too close to the people passing me, because their step to the side gave me proof of my corporeal existence.

It was not lost on me that I held onto serenity in the throes of a family crisis last term, only to fall into a spiraling mess as soon as all was well. I asked myself what the hell happened, but often my attempts to analyze it just sent me spiraling once more. The more I tried to understand why I had suddenly gone crazy, the crazier I felt.

The problem with overanalyzing your problems is that overanalyzing tends to become the problem.

I found myself looking forward to the confidence and connection I felt on the SARC line, while experiencing anxiety about short, small-talk interactions at school. In a crisis, the right thing to do or say is often more clear than in the muddled neutrality of every day life. As Captain Reynolds said, “The woods are the only place I can see a clear path."

In the hours of solitary studying, week after week, it felt like there was nothing for my awareness to hang onto, no concrete stimulus or structure to keep me from going round and round and round. And so, gradually, not as an 'Aha!' moment but as the slow, persistent building of habits out of necessity, I began to build my own structure, an intentional relationship with myself and the beautiful mess of my brain.

It was an exercise in discipline. It forced me to walk my talk, to practice every bit of advice I offer on the SARC line, to become better acquainted with my self than I knew was possible.

One thing I know is that I crave alone time to process and wonder about the world around me. In terms of self-care, I lean towards quiet reflection. This term, having way, way too much of a good thing turned out to be an invaluable opportunity. It forced me to develop different skills and explore the full spectrum of self-stewardship.

Gradually, I created disciplined routines. I moved from a place of sometimes resenting imposed structures and longing to get away from it all, as is often the norm in our culture, to realizing that too little structure is as detrimental as too much. Daily rituals and routines emerged, practiced by and with myself. Slowly, these habits solidified into something that felt like balance.

I got to a place of recognizing the value of being forced to look deeply at the wonderful, chaotic mess of me, explore the skills I generally shy away from, and become comfortable in my own mind. It felt serendipitous that this would happen now, on the cusp of another big transition into a new phase of life. And in writing this, I have to laugh at how it reminds me of when other people explain their vision quests, drug trips, or overly elaborate dreams. I went on an entire journey this term, from chaos to balance, and to any outsider it would just look like me studying on the couch. Clearly, I'm still struggling to articulate it. And it is by no means complete. But one thing I can do is share some of the mantras that emerged for me this term. (And if this resonates with you, I would love to hear about yours.)

When in doubt, breathe.

I can be the one that says what I need to hear.

Never go anywhere without a book.

Any compassion you can extend to others, you can and should extend to yourself, and vice versa.

Be. Here. Now.

You don't own all the problems in the world.

Be proactive. Practice gratitude. Be proactive. Practice gratitude. Seriously, nobody's driving this thing but you.

Sometimes self-care does not mean processing and reflection. Sometimes it means jumping off the couch for an impromptu, one-person dance party. Go with the flow.

Screw nihilism. I make my own meaning.

Home of the Invalids

Posted by Lucille on January 1, 2014 at 9:05 PM Comments comments (2)

This term did not go as expected, in large part because it seemed like there was rarely a day when somebody wasn't sick. By week 2 we were joking that it was time to throw in the towel and just try again next term. But we weathered the ups, the downs, and the weird, and with a little luck and a lot of help, we made it over the finish line.

It even ended on a high note- though Travis still has doctors stumped, he's been feeling better every day, and Dad was the star of the physical therapy center. We pushed through finals week running on momentum if nothing else, looking forward to the holidays as a chance to recoup and start next term on a clean slate.

Fate had other things in mind.

Dad believed he had pulled a muscle, Mom was having back pain, and Pascal lost his voice. I was grateful that this had happened after finals so I could help out a bit as Dad recovered from his setback. Instead, Dad's pain increased exponentially over the next few days and Mom's backache turned into debilitating sciatic pain, and before we knew it the 'setback' had been upgraded to full-out family emergency.

It turned out that Dad had torn a tendon in his good hip (getting out of the car, of all things) and Mom had a bulging disc. With Mom hardly able to sit, Dad unable to stand, and Pascal barely able to speak, we made quite the comedic bunch and laughed about being the home of the invalids. I got a crash course in nursing skills for helping the bedridden and joked about this being a very eccentric take-your-child-to-work-day.

We realized (a little late) that this was beyond our ability to handle, and that it was time to call our banners (as they say in Game of Thrones) and send out the cry for help. The response from friends and family with supportive words, soups, and warm hugs blew us away. I will never be able to adequately express my gratitude, but I hope they know their love and support is most definitely returned.

And then Dad spiked a fever of 104. Mom called an ambulance, and in no time, Dad was being admitted. As scary as this was, we were trapped in a downward spiral, and it was a bit of a relief to turn the mess over to professionals.

Somehow (after four ultrasounds, 2 X-rays, and a CT scan, doctors still aren't sure where it came from) he was septic. We spent Christmas in the hospital, grateful for modern medicine and for the healthcare workers that spent their holiday at work to make sure their patients were cared for.

The white things Dad is holding are the femur head models I got him for xmas. He's torn right now between turning them into a cane handle, a christmas ornament, and a gear shift. (In exchange, Santa brought me two seasons of Call the Midwife. Yay!)

The holidays brought a time to count our blessings:

--The antibiotics are working. Thank. Goodness.

--Disability was successfully extended so dad can recover with peace of mind.

--Mom is scheduled to have her vertebral disc repaired in a few days.

--Dad is mobile again and got to ring in the new year at home.

We're still shaken and pulling things back together, but one thing's for sure: we are starting out the new year moving in the right direction.

Wishing you all the best in 2014.

It's Not You

Posted by Lucille on January 1, 2014 at 7:55 PM Comments comments (0)

Things classmates said this term when asked if they wanted to hang out after class:

"I would, but I need to pick up my son from high school."

"I have to feed my goldfish."

"No. Do you know the answer to number 7?"

"I can't, but maybe next week." (Repeat weekly.)

"Look, you're really sweet, and I swear this is not about you, but I can't. I'm very busy, and at this point I kind of have my friend circle established, you know? But if you're up to it I'd love to keep working with you."

"I promise this isn't personal. At all. I'm just not really looking to make new friends right now. Is that okay?

"I'm graduating after this term and this is my only class right now. Unless I have to be on campus for something, I'm at home taking care of my kids. It's not you."


This term was a bit of an experiment as I tried out being more proactively social with the goal of building close friendships. I had mixed experiences (soulmates did not magically appear out of the woodwork, but I guess that wasn't what I was expecting) and I learned a hell of a lot.

My initial approach was to look for people that I could potentially see becoming close friends, and then do my best to initiate social exchanges with them. My subconscious assumption here was that there was a small number of people out there that I could easily become close friends with and that the challenge lay in finding them. Although this approach has its merits, I gradually realized that this type of 'screening' set me up to judge the people around me, and in the end I was more lonely than before.

I feel a certain debt to the people who responded directly and explained that more often than not, a 'no' in this situation is not personal. This led me to a new set of assumptions going forward:

1) Chances are no one in this room wants to be friends with you.

2) None of their reasons are personal.

3) All of them are dealing with their own challenges and would appreciate a              kind word and a smile.

As Maya Angelou said, “People will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.”

I've known since elementary school that I'm the sort of person who prefers a small group of close friends to a large, distant circle, but I'm learning that lab partners, colleagues, and acquaintances can be invaluable. Here's hoping that even if the acquaintances in my life stay distant for now, the interactions we do have will make their day a little brighter.

Thanksgiving

Posted by Lucille on January 1, 2014 at 7:30 PM Comments comments (0)

Thanksgiving served as a much-needed chance to catch up from the rollercoaster of the term. More than once in the last few weeks, I've wished I could find a minute when all of my family and friends were in good health and then freeze reality that way before it had a chance to change again. Although my reality-freezing powers seem to have gotten lost in the mail, I got the next best thing: a thanksgiving with a healthy and happy family.

Travis and I made a honey ham, and there were games, jokes, and stories aplenty. Dad and Pascal wore their matching shirts from Gambia (Gryffindor colors, of course). Feeling very grateful for the chance to be merry with loved ones and that winter break is on the horizon.

I hope life grants you the chance to celebrate the little things and spend time with people that matter to you this season. Happy Thanksgiving, everyone. 

Cadaver Lab 2

Posted by Lucille on January 1, 2014 at 2:00 AM Comments comments (0)

Normally the cadaver lab is open for studying two days a week, but because of a national holiday, this week that was condensed into one day. It was packed, and a little chaotic. There was a two-hour long waiting list for twenty minutes with the cadavers. Inside the cadaver room, stressed students rushed through the different muscle groups, quickly pulling the superficial muscles out of the way to find the deeper tissue, sometimes lifting up a muscle to show it to a friend on the other side of the room. This was going to be my only chance to study for this week's quiz, but within ten minutes I felt so uncomfortable that I gave up my slot and stepped out.

I sat down in the hallway to collect myself, and tried to justify why I felt upset. Although it was certainly rushed in there, it's not like the cadavers were being damaged. I didn't see any student violate the codes of conduct. But there was a lack of gentleness and patience that had deeply bothered me.

And I kept asking myself, why? If they were not being damaged and were filling their function as educational tools, why did it matter if they were handled with only the necessary amount of care? They were not alive. No one who knew the person in life would ever know anything about how we interacted with their body. The school had paid for us to use these cadavers as educational tools, and the rushed pack of students in the cadaver room meant that many students were learning a lot of material. And so I kept asking myself, seeking some concrete reason to explain my emotions. Why did gentleness matter?

The answer, I decided, was that it didn't matter for the person who donated their body- it mattered for us. It mattered because what we practice in our early experiences with the human body we will be likely to practice later on. There will undoubtedly be times, later in life, when we need to examine a living patient with the same urgency, and gentle efficiency will need to be a matter of habit.

It also matters because although they are educational tools, cadavers are more than extremely accurate models. No matter how much money you had, you could not (legally) buy one unless someone decided to offer it. They are gifts. Treating the cadavers with care is a reminder that a living person valued our education enough to donate the most personal thing they ever had. Gentleness is a gesture of humility and gratitude- to each other and to ourselves.

I canceled my evening plans and went back, after dark on a Friday, to the now almost deserted laboratory building. A few students were quietly examining the cadavers, working together in peaceful efficiency, and I joined them. The TA circulated, answering questions and offering helpful pneumonics and jokes. We laughed as we took turns teaching each other. When I left, I realized that I'd learned more in thirty minutes than I could have learned in hours earlier. That's a good way to end the week.

Hospital Hot Call

Posted by Lucille on December 29, 2013 at 8:20 PM Comments comments (0)

**Sometimes I have the privilege of being a part of intimate, powerful moments in other people’s lives. I cannot and would not share these stories, because they are not mine to tell. However, they touch my life and become part of my own story. When I share these moments here, you can trust that I have not broken anyone’s confidentiality. The characters are invented. They are not real, but could be. I take creative license to communicate the essence of my experience while respecting the privacy of others.**


A fluke in my school schedule let me get temporarily ahead in my classes, and I went into a SARC shift with nothing to work on and no upcoming commitments. I joked with my backup that it would be a great day for a hospital hot call. The universe delivered.

The Sexual Assault Forensic Exam is about as tedious and unpleasant as it sounded in training. The Sexual Assault Nurse Examiners worked hard to help the survivor feel in control, but it was still a long and difficult process. Very long, and very difficult. The survivor was amazing. In fact, she was the sort of woman that I could easily see myself being close to in other circumstances, and that made it harder.

I yearned to be able to protect her, and would have loved it if she had wanted a shoulder to cry on or a hand to hold, but she preferred light-hearted distraction. I gave myself one firm reminder that it was not what would be rewarding to me, but what would fit her needs, that mattered, and then did my best to conform to that- keeping my distance, maintaining a professional tone, and chatting with her about dogs, the weather, any random subject that had nothing to do with what was going on in the room.

After the exam, two police officers came in to do their interview. I felt a sense of dread. They were Caucasian men about the same age as the perpetrator, in a case where both age and race had played a role in the assault, and with weapons strapped all over their vests, they made an intimidating figure. I have heard horror stories about insensitive, victim-blaming police officers from other advocates, and I mentally prepared myself to try to run interference if necessary.

It wasn't. They did everything they could to make her feel as comfortable as possible. The best way I can put this is that if they were my sons, I would be damn proud.

I learned from observing them. Even though they had towered over us when they came into the room, with their posture and tone, they made themselves small. They went above and beyond in assuring her that when they asked difficult questions like, "Did you fight back? Call for help? Yell 'no'?" they were in no way trying to blame her for the assault, but just needed to get as much information as possible. The interview was unbelievably long and detailed, but the officers were so good at their work that at the end, wrapped in a blanket on the edge of the hospital bed, she was answering them less like a traumatized crime victim and more like a teenager at a slumber party confiding in her closest friends.

I do not want to dismiss what a difficult process this is. We were there for over eight hours and it absolutely qualified as invasive and retraumatizing, but the kindness of the people made a brutal process a little gentler. If every survivor of assault was given the quality of care from nurses and officers that I saw today, the world would be a much better place. For the first time I felt a sense of trust and community in this work that extended well beyond SARC, to all of the programs and people that work with victims of violent crime, and I felt privileged to be a part of it.

When I got home, exhausted, I made my way to my painting and left a full handprint that was as much good wishes for the survivor as it was a thank you- for the resilience, empathy, and kindness of human beings.


First Cadaver Lab

Posted by Lucille on November 28, 2013 at 4:00 PM Comments comments (0)

In Anatomy, we wrapped up bone features and moved on to muscles, which meant it was time to start working in the cadaver room. It turns out the wetting solution they use to keep the cadavers supple is basically diluted fabric softener. I'm not sure what I expected the cadaver room to smell like, but fluffy, cuddly teddy bears wasn't it. I was incredibly relieved. And yet, the sudden desire to take a big, deep breath was a little disconcerting.

I had wondered, as I got ready to go to class, what it would be like to donate my body to education. In the shower, I looked over every curve of my body, and mused over features I liked, old insecurities, and quirks I had grown to love. I remembered the stories behind every scar and traced the patterns of my veins beneath my skin. I wiggled my fingers and toes- ever present companions since before I was born. Even though I knew it wouldn't be me, it was hard to imagine entrusting something so unbelievably personal to perfect strangers.

But at the end of the lab, I understood. My value in my body lies in the personal, but the value of the cadavers lies purely in the universal. We gathered around a woman's body, which was already prepped to allow us to view the muscles easily. Beyond a default respect, no one spared a glance for her face, her breasts, her fingers and toes, or any other features I imagined to have sentimental value. We were all too busy looking for her extensor carpi radialis brevis and a whole bunch of other little muscles most people never know they have.

There is a way in which objects are defined by their use. When this body went from being prized for its uniqueness to prized for its universality, it became something else, an educational tool. What a wondrous thing that something as complex and varied as the human body can undergo such a transformation.

What was even more amazing was just how incredibly useful the cadavers were for properly understanding the muscular system. We do have plastic models, but after several instances of throwing them down in frustration only to find the muscles I was interested in visible in perfect clarity on the cadaver, I stopped bothering with them. Although you could learn the location of muscles from the models, on the cadavers you could visualize the way they worked together to enable precise actions. It was an entirely different game.

Not all anatomy classes have access to cadavers, but I couldn't imagine it without them. They were orders of magnitude more useful. Really, I could not overstate the educational difference. And when my understanding of anatomy and physiology is arguably the most relevant thing I will learn in college, and will have a direct impact on my future patients, that matters. Although I knew that hundreds of students would learn from this particular cadaver, it suddenly felt like a very personal gift, and I said a silent thank you as I moved on to the next muscle group.

The Friend Thing (Part 2)

Posted by Lucille on November 28, 2013 at 3:35 PM Comments comments (0)

A few weeks into term it was time for the bone practical exam. Because this was the first major exam in the class I know will be most similar to nursing school, I wanted to do spectacularly, and I drilled myself until my brain ached and I felt confident I had prepared as much as I possibly could.

It turned out to be easier than I expected, and I left the room smiling with a dazed relief. My lab partner caught up to me in the hall.

"That was great, wasn't it? I think I rocked it!"

I smiled, amused at his constant air of confidence, and far too happy that the test was over to be annoyed. "It was. That was easier than I expected."

"I think I actually scraped an 85. What about you? How many do you think you got wrong?"

I like debriefing after a test, but I generally avoid discussing absolute scores. However, he had asked me directly, so I answered. "Well, I mean, I don't think I got anything wrong."

He stopped and stared at me. "You're serious. What did you get on the quizzes?"

"91, 94, 92."

He stood planted in the hallway, staring like he'd never seen me before. Finally he said, "How the hell did it take me this long to figure out you were smarter than me?"

Not knowing how to answer that, I shrugged.

"God I'm embarrassed. I mean, I've been trying to tutor you! I'm not saying you lied, but..."

"Okay, okay, okay. First of all, there are a lot of kinds of intelligence, and second of all, I'm making this class my first priority- that doesn't make me smarter. Third-"

"Okay, I get it," he laughed, and we started walking again. "Still, you should have told me you were getting better grades than I was."

"Maybe, but I think sometimes it's more courteous to be less... confident. Acknowledging that you're not perfect kind of gives other people permission to struggle. Do you know what I mean?"

He turned and grinned at me. "You're telling me to be less arrogant!"

I was about to protest, but because I knew him to appreciate directness, I grinned and shoved him playfully. "You could stand to scale it back a little."

"Fair enough," he laughed, shoving me back, "And you should be more honest."

"Deal," I said. "Hey, do you want to-"

He gave me a look.

"Right. No friend thing. Study party? We should hit the ground running on the muscle system."

"Same time same place?"

"You got it."

The Friend Thing (Part 1)

Posted by Lucille on November 28, 2013 at 2:00 AM Comments comments (0)

One of my goals this term is to meet people and make new friends, and so far I have not been very successful. After a morning of having all of my attempts at small talk fail miserably, I walked to lab determined to talk to someone, and thought about how best to strike up a conversation.

We had our first bone quiz that day, and I was feeling pretty well prepared. But this is a difficult class and I learned a while ago that being too confident right before a test is a good way to look arrogant. So I found someone sitting by himself, feigned a tone of worry, and said, "So, how are you feeling about this quiz?"

He shrugged. "I'm not worried. I mean, this isn't a class where you can fake it by being clever about the test. You either know it or you don't. I put in the work, so I'm not that concerned."

And I was right, it made him sound arrogant. But he hadn't sighed before answering, or given me a "Why are you talking to me?" look, and I sensed that he was not trying to be rude but just giving his honest opinion upfront. There is something to be said for that. So I stayed and chatted with him for a bit, and when the test was handed out, I wished him luck.

We partnered up to work on the bone models later. Normally I hate working in groups because I'm much faster by myself, but he was actually an efficient study partner, and was content to work on his own for a while and only regroup to go over questions. By the end of the class, I was coming to him with questions just as often, and realized that I had actually been faster and learned more because he was there. The prospect thrilled me. Perhaps this was someone I could develop a friendship with.

We walked back together after class, and I turned to him and said, "Hey, do you want to grab a coffee or something this weekend?"

"No," he said without hesitation.

I gave him a look of confusion.

"Sorry, I didn't mean that personally. I just don't do the friend thing."

"The friend thing?" I asked.

"Well, yeah. It takes a lot of time and effort to get the grades I do, and I have to make certain sacrifices. Maybe after I get into med school I'll think about it. Actually, probably not until I'm a physician. Until then, I just don't do anything social. It keeps me focused."

"Right." I said. Ugh. I thought anatomy would be a great place to make friends because it selects for people with a common interest, but there are downsides to being in competitive programs. New strategy. "How about a study party then? I could use some more practice on the bone features of the forearm."

He grinned. "Sounds good."


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HIPAA Disclaimer

Sometimes I have the privilege of being a part of intimate, powerful moments in other people’s lives. I cannot and would not share these stories, because they are not mine to tell. However, they touch my life and become part of my own story. When I share these moments here, you can trust that I have not broken anyone’s confidentiality. The characters are invented. They are not real, but could be. I take creative license to communicate the essence of my experience while respecting the privacy of others.