I had always thought about a nursing career but didn’t feel ready for it when I was younger. I was a textile artist who was passionate about art education for children so I became an elementary school art teacher. In my late 20s, I had the privilege to be present when my beloved grandmother died of cancer in hospice care at home. It was a profound and moving experience, and it planted a seed in my heart about one day getting involved in end-of-life care. Nursing remained in the back of my mind throughout my 30s while I was busy parenting, teaching, and being an artist.
In my mid-40s, I was involved in Buddhism, went on a lot of silent meditation retreats and I heard about Zen Hospice Project in San Francisco — a six-bed hospice residence dedicated to mindful and compassionate care for people at the end of life. Like a gong going off in my heart, I knew this was where I needed to be. I applied, trained, and became a bedside, volunteer caregiver at Zen Hospice’s serene Guest House. Immediately, I realized that this truly was it — I wanted to become a hospice nurse.
I jumped into a certified nursing assistant program, became a CNA, and got hired to the nursing staff at the Guest House. I happily worked there as a CNA, and became a facilitator for end-of-life education classes at Zen Hospice, while taking my nursing school prerequisites. I had the most deeply fulfilling and meaningful experiences I’d ever had caring for people at the end of life at Zen Hospice. It was a perfect fit. All of my myriad life experiences of joy and suffering, and my particular strengths, skills, values, and desires all channeled seamlessly into hospice caregiving. It was like coming home. I still get overwhelmed with gratitude. So, I entered nursing school with one intention: to become a hospice nurse.
Choosing the Accelerated Bachelor of Nursing (ABSN) program
I chose the ABSN program because, frankly, I'm older and needed to just get this degree done as quickly as possible. All the other nursing programs in the area were impacted and had a lottery system so it was going to likely take a couple years even to get in, even after completing all prerequisites. Once in a program, it would have taken two years to complete because they were not accelerated. Samuel Merritt University's ABSN program was the fastest way to get a BSN, and of course its good reputation was meaningful to me too.
How my SMU education changed my direction
I fell in love with the other end of life — the beginning! I fell in love with caring for newborn babies at a neonatal intensive care unit (NICU) during my maternity clinical rotation. There was a similar sensation of the NICU being exactly the right thing for me that I feel with hospice. Only babies are much yummier! To me, the need for nurturing, tenderness, sensitivity, and fortitude are very much the same for hospice and for NICU — both fields require what I would call true caregiving.
A transforming experience
I spent a shift in the NICU caring for a full-term newborn going through opioid withdrawals from her mother’s drug use. She was a beautiful little dark-haired girl who would cry incessantly if not held and walked around nearly constantly. My job was to care for those babies and their mothers as best I could in the time I had with them.
I held that sweet little girl for most of my shift, gently bouncing up and down, swinging side to side, strolling through the NICU until my arms ached. My arms were sore for two days after holding that sweet little baby. Her dark eyes remained open and alert, a pained look on her face. She would start crying as soon as I stopped moving. I wondered what lay ahead for this sweet little baby having such a hard entry into life. I could not make choices for her or her family, but while she was in my charge I would infuse her with the best care I could. In this way, the NICU feels much like hospice work to me: I tenderly care for them and then I let them go into the unknown — one into life, one into death. To me this feels like an honor.
A profound sense of accomplishment
I started working as a CNA at the George Mark Children’s House for Pediatric Palliative Care three months ago and I love working there. Caring for severely disabled and terminally ill children and infants really combines my love of babies and children with end-of-life care. It’s a beautiful, beautiful place. I’m hoping to continue working there as an RN part time and work in a NICU. One day I will return to adult hospice care, but I want to tend sick babies and children for a good while. I love the big transitions — beginning of life and the end of life. Caring for people at the ends of the spectrum is profoundly nourishing and fulfilling for me.
Commencement means the end of about 10 years of college and graduate school. I am ready to be done with school. This accelerated BSN program was the hardest year of school I’ve ever encountered. The pace, workload, and content were astonishingly challenging — but I did it all and I have a profound sense of accomplishment in that. I’m getting my RN at age 49! I am yearning to get a job in the NICU at Alta Bates Hospital in Berkeley — my dream job.
My advice for students just beginning the ABSN program
Do your best to stay balanced — eat well, don’t skimp on sleep, try to get some exercise. You will have to find a new way to study — the pace of this program meant that I could not rely on reading textbooks and rewriting my notes as I had always done. Also, I hate to say it, but the EAQs were really one of the most helpful (and maddening and seemingly endless) study assignments. Do some every day, or aim for that, and start as soon as you begin a new class. They are very time consuming but, for me, effective. Read the rationales. I watched YouTube nursing videos a lot too.
Also remember to connect with your classmates — that’s what I’ll miss the most about this program, my fellow students. Help each other and let yourself be helped. This program is too hard to do in isolation. Nursing is about caring for people — care for each other and take care of yourself. Good luck; it’s quite a ride!