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Nursing Memories 

Northwest author and nurse Mary Jane Nealon talks about her memoir

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Poet Mary Jane Nealon always had big dreams. “As far back as I can remember, I wanted to be a nurse or a saint. I wanted to be heroic,” she writes in the first line of her memoir, Beautiful Unbroken: One Nurse’s Life, which won Middlebury College’s Katharine Bakeless Nason Prize for nonfiction.

But Nealon struggled as a child. “I was pale, with brittle teeth, and lips that went bluish whenever I was scared, which I was, all the time.”

Nealon channeled that fear by boldly facing down illness and death in her career, working as a flight nurse, in emergency rooms and in a New York City AIDS clinic at the peak of the epidemic. In her memoir, she gives readers not only a glimpse into her personal life, but into the side of health care that many never see — the often physically and emotionally exhausting experience on the other end of the stethoscope.

She took time out from her work as the program director of a Missoula community health clinic to talk with InHealthNW.

Your book shows the personal struggles nurses face as caregivers. Do you think it’s important that they find outlets — like writing has been for you — to help unload the burdens of caregiving?

I really do. At our community health center, we’re trying to work on a project for vicarious trauma. There are a lot of studies out there right now that show that people who work with people who have traumatic things happening to them, (that) if you’re empathetic … and you’re in it with them, that you start to have some brain changes. Vicarious trauma is a known thing. It’s why [nurses] desensitize. It’s why I try to have balance in my life, I try to process things that are sad.

For a number of years I did chemotherapy, which is very high-tech, and you have to have a lot of skill in that area. But to me, the real skill is when you sit on that stool to push the chemotherapy, that if you haven’t connected with that person on a human level, they sort of can’t do it. So I think there are things clinically that I’m interested in, but I’m interested primarily in the old-fashioned kind of healing. Patients often heal themselves — they figure out that they want to live, or they participate in their care in a way that they’re successful. But if you haven’t earned their trust and you haven’t connected with them on a human level, that doesn’t happen.

How has poetry impacted your life as a caregiver?

I think I’ve always needed to write. It’s always been a very big part of my identity, and sometimes something really tragic would happen on the job, and I would think to myself, “This is a thing, this is a moment.” … In some ways, it made it harder for me. But my community of poetry friends, and the act of having something that is really life-affirming, has kept me tethered to joy, and that really helped my life, and still does.

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