04 May 2017

Ashley runs for CHOP.

I feel like it's finally time to share my story if for no other reason so that I can look back in time, years from now, and remember how one decision tumbled into a series of decisions that changed my life for the better.

It was 2008. I was stuck in rut. I hated getting out of bed in the morning (I still hate getting out of bed, so I suppose that part hasn't really changed). I dreaded going to work. I lost ambition to learn. Now don't get me wrong, I LOVED the people I worked with and for. They were the number one reason I remained in the field of accounting for three years. Three years doesn't seem like a long time, but when you take into consideration the fact that I was 25 with one hell of a successful career already under my belt, three years quickly feels like a lifetime. A lifetime (un?)fortunately that I desperately needed to escape from. The money was fantastic and it would only have gotten better had I remained a CPA. That's actually the number one thing that people are always curious about - don't you miss the money, though?! Yes and no. Yes, it was nice to be able to pay my bills, save money, and be able to shop and vacation as I pleased. But it obviously wasn't enough to buy more of my time. And, so, I resigned. Not when the timing was right. Not when I had saved up enough money to afford to quit. Not when I had a new job lined up. I did it when I knew deep down in the core of my being that I simply could not be a happy person when I felt so incredibly stuck. I packed my bags, moved home from California and started the job hunt in the nonprofit business. It was 2008 and the US was amidst a terrible recession. I was either over qualified for the jobs I was applying for - baffling employers with my experience or simply didn't have the right experience. With the help of my cousin, Andrea, I secured a job at the hospital my brother, sister, cousins and I spent hundreds of hours volunteering at during high school. I became a volunteer coordinator making just over a third of the salary I was making as a CPA. I was living pay check to pay check, but I felt like I was finally making a difference with my work. I had the most phenomenal manager (hey, Pam!) and secretary (hello, Gerda!). The dream team (coined by Pam) managed over a thousand volunteers from ninth graders to ninety year olds. These selfless, charitable, compassionate individuals came in week after week, year after year, giving their time and energy to the patients, families and employees of the former University Medical Center of Princeton. They came from all walks of life, all carrying the same mission: to give back. I LOVED them SO much. One of my favorite responsibilities, which might I add, was very near and dear to my heart was mentoring the hundreds of high schoolers who volunteered, especially the ones who volunteered within our office to help make our program a success. I finally didn't dread going to work. However, I knew that my time was limited there. As much as I loved the people I was surrounded by, I needed to push myself further. I needed to find out what else the world had to offer and what else I had to offer to the world. And so I did some very introspective soul searching. I pored through job search engines, closely examining job responsibilities and background experiences for careers that I could envision myself in. I asked SO many people about their jobs, trying to find what it was that I wanted to do, what I was meant to do. I entertained the idea of nursing, going so far as to attending an orientation for second degree nursing students at a college in Philadelphia. I came home without the sense of clarity I was so desperately seeking. I went back to the drawing board, considered taking my GRES to go back to school for I don't even know what. During this time, I began volunteering along side Child Life Specialists at The Bristol-Myers Squibb Children's Hospital. I had previously volunteered with the Make-A-Wish Foundation when I lived in California and knew that children had a special place in my heart. I've always loved working with kids, dating back to when I was in middle school and volunteered in my former first grade teacher's class after I got out of school. There's something so remarkable about seeing life through the eyes of a child and never fully understanding their uncanny ability to evoke so many emotions from others. With this, pediatric nursing took a front spot in my list of possible career choices. But I had to be sure. So I continued to search my soul, making sure that this is what I wanted to do. After spending so much time, energy and money on my first degree (something I don't and will never regret), I needed to believe that going back to school made sense. I talked to so many nurses where I worked, I talked to my family members and friends. I was met with a lot of resistance. Nurses don't make that much money. Nurses eat their young. Nurses don't earn the respect they deserve. You don't love science, how will you ever become a nurse? You're afraid of blood. You're too sensitive. You may love kids, but would you ever be able to place a child in a body bag? And then I faced resistance fabricated by my own mind. I'm too old, people are telling me I can't do it, it will be too expensive to go back to school. But slowly, I started to tune out that resistance and dialed into the force that was building within me telling me that I could do this; I could go back to school, I could, in fact, become a nurse. I met with one of my greatest mentors at work, Reverend White, who told me that time will always go on and that age should never be a factor in doing what I want to do. I may be 30 by the time I secure my first nursing job, but I could also be 30 and still be searching for that so-called "dream career." Either way, I'd be 30 one day, a nurse or not. I listened to one of my beloved volunteers, Vagdevi, who told me to not worry about what other people think (ironically, very profound advice from a 16 year old at the time). I knew that my family would support me no matter what (I also know that I am beyond blessed to have had that sense of emotional security).

The day I decided was, I suppose, in a sense life changing. I had just worked my first Clif Bar event in New York with several nurses and NP students from Columbia University who all worked for Clif Bar on a part-time basis (a huge thank you to Jess who connected me with Clif Bar in the first place!). I did the same thing that I had been doing for the past two years - perform the Spanish Inquisition and absorb everything my tiny brain could handle from these nurses (especially Jen and Paige). The spark that had been slowly forming in my brain turned into a effervescent flame. Something snapped. A realization was made. I remember telling my parents that I was going to do it. I was going back to school to become a nurse.

Now, I just needed a plan. I had the why, but I needed the how, what, when, where. And, in typical Courtney fashion, I needed these answers ASAP. The next day I hopped online and saw that Rutgers University would soon be accepting applications for their accelerated nursing degree program starting the following spring. That was 9 months away. Seeing as how my degree in accounting didn't exactly lend itself to a degree in nursing in terms of prerequisites, I needed to fine tune my game plan and do so quickly. The fall semester at community colleges had already begun. There was no way I was going to complete Anatomy and Physiology I and II before the program at Rutgers began (a program that I had not even applied to yet, nevermind been accepted to!). I searched the internet - surely there must be an Anatomy and Physiology I course that had not yet started. I am a self-proclaimed master of finding anything and everything online, and sure enough, I discovered a virtual A&P I class at Bucks County Community College starting in a few weeks (oh how I love you, modern technology! well sometimes!). I was in luck. Who cares that I had to APPLY to the college and BEG the professor to allow me to join the already over maximum capacity class. I had previously taken a nutrition course the prior summer at my local community college on a whim, as it was something I was interested in, but I still had five prerequisites to complete before the program that I hadn't yet applied to started. I met with my best friend's mom, Mrs. Jones, at Mercer County Community College to build my schedule for the spring semester. I made the bittersweet arrangements with my job to resign. I fine tuned and perfected my one and only nursing school application, applied for a student loan - my savings from EY long since gone after working in non-profit, and hoped for the best. I endured the agony that was organic chemistry. I became lab partners with a girl named Catherine, who was just as clueless as me in biology, but helped me get through the course. I hoped and prayed for my acceptance letter to Rutgers with as much fervor I had for my acceptance letter to Hogwart's (still waiting on that one).

I had an incredibly well thought out Plan A, but I had no Plan B. I realized at the time, and even now in hindsight, how incredibly silly that was, but I had practiced the secret with every ounce of my being. The Secret finally materialized with my acceptance to the accelerated second degree nursing program at Rutgers University. During the 15 months I was a nursing student, I crammed my brain with SO MUCH INFORMATION I thought my head was going to BURST. Starbucks became my rent free home away from home with my nursing school friends. We felt like we were medical students. I had a flashcard for EVERY SINGLE THING that was taught to us. We took SO many tests. It was actually really quite unreal.

I graduated nursing school with a huge sense of accomplishment and excitement for what came next (oh, and my biff, Brittany!). The next chapter for me was perhaps one of the more challenging chapters of my life. While I immediately took my NCLEX exam to become a registered nurse, I did place the job search on the back burner. My sister and I were taking care of two of the most adorable little girls, Paige and Avery, who absolutely stole our hearts. Their story is one for another day, down the road, when it is ready to be told. At the time, these girls depended so much on my sister and I (and, when I look back, I realize that my heart depended on them, too). They were EVERYTHING to me, so I simply could not - would not - leave them to find a job right away. Not that the job market was exceptional, but they were my number one priority. In time though my job search began. I networked. My resume was sent all over. I knew I was at a disadvantage. I was a second degree nursing student. I was also looking for a very specific job. I was not interested in adult nursing (I have so much respect for the nurses who take care of adult and geriatric patients, as it's something I could not do). I wanted to work in pediatrics, but not just anywhere. I wanted to work at the Children's Hospital of Philadelphia. My heart was so deeply connected to CHOP, so much so that in the back of my mind, just as I knew that Rutgers was where I wanted to obtain my degree, CHOP was where I wanted to work once I earned that degree. My late cousin, Brent, received treatment at CHOP for his Crohn's disease; Avery also received (and still does) treatment at CHOP for her Crohn's disease and my wonderful friend Karen's daughter, Julie, has spent so many months over the past few years as an inpatient at CHOP for her AHC. You can see how much CHOP means to me and the people who were and are very near and dear to my heart.

Fast forward to present day. I have been a nurse in the Pediatric Intensive Care Unit since November 2014. That's two and a half years of lessons learned, hardship, and tears. But also two and a half years of smiles shared with co-workers who have become close friends, family members and patients. But most importantly, it's two and a half years of memories.

I remember the very first intubated patient I took care of. I remember the night I admitted a patient who had a gunshot to the head. I remember the patient who we escalated respiratory support for, from nasal cannula to CPAP to BiPAP to intubation in a matter of hours. I remember the patient who received a liver transplant at a few months old. I remember the patients who died because they didn't get a liver transplant in time. I remember the countless oncology patients I took care of - the ones who made it and the ones who didn't. I remember taking care of the helpless children whose parents were never around and embracing those parents who never left the bedside. I remember the children who defeated inconceivable odds.

I don't remember every face. It's nearly impossible to, or us nurses wouldn't be able to do what we do. But, I do remember some. The ones who snuck into my heart and will forever remain a part of me, of who I am, and what I do.

Don't get me wrong, I don't always think I have a dream job. It's a tough, tiring, demanding job. I used to think accounting was tough. And it was. I worked LONG hours, sometimes just me, myself, and I in front of a computer or bent over spreadsheets with a red pencil. I do not like to compare jobs in the sense that one job is harder than the next. I think both of the careers I've had at the ripe old age of almost 32 (!!!) are equally tough. They're complex and challenging, but in different ways. It doesn't make one better than the other, it just means that one is better FOR me.

Are all of the things that everyone said to me back when I was merely entertaining the idea of nursing true? Yes, absolutely. Some nurses do indeed eat their young. I was not protected from that experience, but refusing to let that jade me, I sought out the dozens upon dozens of nurses who brought my spirits up and taught me how to be a good nurse. Do nurses get paid enough? My bank account doesn't seem to think so. Am I in quite a bit of student loan debt? You betcha!

I am now just getting to the point where I am not completely ridden with anxiety about going in for a 12 hour shift. For two years, my stomach would swirl with anxiety before each shift. EVERYONE goes through this, but when you're the one going through it, it's such an overwhelming feeling. How do you possibly go into work not knowing what kind of patient you are going to have, not knowing how sick s/he is going to be, who your co-workers are (which is often the key to a good shift), what the parents and families of the patient will be like? You do it because you love it. You may not always like it, but there is ALWAYS something that happens at least once a shift that reminds you that you do indeed love your job.

So why am I really sharing all of this now?

Perhaps its because my days at CHOP as a full-time nurse are now numbered. Brendan has received orders to be an instructor pilot at a Navy base in Florida (yay for the sun!!!) and so in just a few short weeks we will be relocating. Fortunately, I am able to stay on in the PICU as a flex nurse for the unforeseeable future. We all know that I cannot possibly go more than a month without seeing my family (ahem, Connor and Audrey), so I'll be working here and there, which I'm incredibly excited about (and thankful for!). Military life is complicated and unpredictable, so it's reassuring to be able to continue my career at CHOP. But, with so many changes happening in my life (a move, a wedding, a new house, a new job), I think my heart needed to share the path that I took to arrive where I am today. How exactly did a CPA become a PICU Nurse. If for no other reason than for nostalgia's sake.

There's also one more thing.

Of all people, my sister, my best friend, my I don't know how I am going to not live a mile away from you anymore partner in crime took it upon herself to create a group for the 2017 Daisy Days 31 Days 4 Chop Challenge. I say "of all people," not because my sister isn't athletic or charitable or inspiring. She was, in fact, a celebrated athlete in high school, excelling in all sports, most notably softball and field hockey. She was definitely the athlete of the family. However, my sister, was never a long distance runner. *I* am the runner in the family. *I* was the one who got into running about ten years ago. *I* was the one who begged my sister to join me and run 5ks, relays, and half marathons. And then I moved to Philly and my lungs decided they preferred the country air of Hopewell rather than the pollution and smoke of the city. Even my inhaler didn't appreciate the change in scenery, at least not enough to help me run more than a couple miles. So, for the past two years, running has become more of a struggle than a source of renewed energy. But, slowly, my body has adjusted and I am advancing back in time to my old self who enjoyed running. More importantly, though, my sister has learned to embrace running. Yup, Ashley, the I hate running crusader, is outrunning me and killing it. She works out before a long day of teaching. She runs on her lunch break. She runs after school. To put it mildly, I'm jealous. She literally made 2017 her year to own her fitness and her progress is awe-inspiring. I've always felt like she's been the prettier, blonder, taller, more fit sister (and I'm not ashamed to admit that), but I always took pride in the fact that I could outrun her (sisters will be sisters, I suppose!). Just last month my sister asked me to run her first official 5k with her. I was blown away. All jealousy I had went out the window (okay, so maybe not all of it) and was replaced with inspiration and respect. My sister was working SO hard to find balance and I realized that by replacing my jealousy of her with pride for her gave me more motivation and inspiration to find balance within myself (thank you to Brendan for shedding light on this fact).

A few nights ago, Ashley texted me and my mom and asked if we wanted to join her on her #31days4chop journey. She was so excited to include me and my mom, who has also been KILLING IT when it comes to taking ownership of finding balance in her life (read: super proud daughter right here). My mom and I both agreed to it, thereby creating a group Ashley entitled "The Three Best Friends." Over the course of the next month, we will hold ourselves and each other accountable as we raise money while we run/walk/hike a total of 193 miles (31 for my mom, 62 for me, 100 for Ashley). Since you can donate to a specific area of the hospital, I obviously decided that we would raise money for the Pediatric Intensive Care Unit (PICU) at CHOP. A unit that has given me SO much over the past two and a half years, it's only right to GIVE BACK.

Ladies and gentlemen, that's my story. For now, at least. It's also only May 5th, which means there is STILL TIME for you to sign up, join our team, create a team, or donate to support the PICU at CHOP. A place that will FOREVER hold a place in my heart.

Please visit https://chop.donordrive.com/index.cfm?fuseaction=donorDrive.participant&participantID=43083 for my fundraising page or for more information on how to become involved!!!