In 2002 my mother came to UCLA as a liver transplant patient, little did I know then that the journey would change my life forever.
My mother fell ill unexpectedly in November 2001, and by early January 2002 the doctor’s caring for her at Kaiser said my mother needed a lifesaving liver transplant that they were not equipped to handle, so she was transferred and admitted into the liver transplant unit at UCLA in Westwood.
Over the next month it was a roller coaster filled with tests, results, and medical terms I did not know, or even understand, and at times doctors didn’t know how to break it down into simple terms my parents could really understand, but I began to research and ask questions so I could help my parents understand what was happening to my mom in simple ways they could understand. It was because of this experience that I learned how to be a patient advocate.
It seemed like an eternity to see if she even qualified to be a recipient for a new liver, when she did we were overcome with joy, and a sense of renewed hope, but most of all this would be a test for her, our family, and those close to us. The ups and downs, despair turning into hope, and later hope turning to acceptance of the most profound loss I had ever known in my life, the death of my best friend, my mentor, my confidant, my mother, Mom.
Looking back now some 17 years later I am actually grateful for the entire experience, not for the loss of my mother, but what I gained from the experience at UCLA, because of one special nurse, someone who really understood what being a nurse is, what truly being a healer of human kind is, what kindness, and caring without effort looks like, she was an ICU nurse, and her Name was Heather.
The direction of my life was going to take a 180 turn as a result of having Heather care for my mom, and all she did for the family too. While my mother laid in a coma in the 7 East ICU desperately awaiting her transplant that would never come, she was cared for by Heather, and many other nurses, but Heather stood out amongst them all. What I would later learn about Heather is that she knew what needed to be done, not just for my mom, but for our family. What does that mean you ask? Well there comes a time when a nurse not only nurses her patient, but also nurses the family through some of the toughest times in their lives. The care, compassion, tenderness, and acts of kindness she showed still resonate in me some 17 years later, as I nurse and care for my own patients here at UCLA.
Maya Angelou said it best “I've learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel”
What I received from Heather was the encouragement to follow the path God had chosen for me, that I had yet to see for myself. I was allowed to be a part of every aspect of my mother’s care, turning her, cleaning her, and giving her comfort, just to mention a few. Heather would answer my questions with honesty during the long hours we spent together, no matter how silly I thought they may sound, she helped me to understand the process of what my mother was going through, she was my first mentor in nursing. When she didn’t know what was going to happen next, or to maybe soften a hard blow she would shake her hands as if string up the glitter of an imaginary globe, and look down, then to me in the eyes and say “My crystal ball is broken, but I am sure it will be as it should be, but I just don’t know” she would smile a very genuine smile, and try to comfort me as best she could. One night while taking a break to eat I passed by the gift shop, and in the window was a beautiful snow globe with flowers and a garden inside, I went in and purchased it as a thank you to Heather for all she had done. I brought it upstairs and gave it to her. When she opened it she looked at me and I said “This is for the times your crystal ball is broken, you can shake it and say that beautiful things is all you can see.”
Heather saw the qualities of a nurse in me during the month she cared for my family, and on the night my mother passed Heather turned to me and said “ Julie, you missed your calling in life, you should have been a nurse. If you can care for your mom like this, then you can care for strangers in the same way, and you can make a difference in the world.
I laid my mother to rest a few days later, and 2 months after that I began nursing school, because of what Heather had said to me, but more importantly because of what Heather taught me by her example. I never saw Heather again after that night, and never got a chance to tell her how profoundly she impacted my life. She may never know that her acts of kindness helped me to become a nurse. I hope someday I will be able to thank her in person for helping me choose a profession that at times has been the most difficult I have ever faced, but with some of the deepest rewards of gratitude I could have ever felt.
The following year I graduated and became a nurse on what would have been my mother’s 61st birthday, it felt like life was coming full circle. Today I am the proudest I have ever been in my career, because recently I became a nurse at UCLA where I get the honor, and privilege to care for patients, and their families the same way Heather cared for us in our darkest days. I also get to celebrate their joys as well. For a brief moment in time I get to be part of their world, and I get the honor to live UCLA’s vision… to heal humankind, one patient at a time, by improving health, alleviating suffering, and delivering acts of kindness. As a nurse, and personally, that is the greatest gift I can give to the very people I care for, my patients.