Being a nurse with a chronic illness

chronic illnessJust a few months after starting my first nursing job in the ICU, I was diagnosed with a chronic form of blood cancer. To say I was stressed is putting it mildly. On top of that, in 2013 I began having issues with my joints. They were swollen, painful and made it impossible for me to do my job. I went out on medical leave numerous times, cut my hours and even quit nursing for about a year while I pondered what my future options were.

Now, in 2017 I am ecstatic to report that I’m back at work FULL TIME and doing great! Yes, I still have polycythemia vera and yes, I still battle my autoimmune disorder but with the right approach I am (for the most part) symptom free. I thought I’d share with you how I cope with having a chronic illness in hopes that those of you who are also struggling can see that you don’t have to give up on your dream of being a nurse just because you’re not “healthy.”

With chronic illness, you must take care of yourself first

The first rule of being a nurse with chronic illness is to take care of yourself first. We spend so much of our time and energy caring for others, that we get lost in the process. This applies to nursing students, too (though the problem nursing students face is tending to their studies before tending to their own needs…read this post to see what I mean). Here are a few things you can do:

1) Put your health at the top of your priorities.

Yes, I know what you’re saying…”But I’ve got kids and their needs come first,” or “School takes up ALL my time,” or “I’m in school AND working…there aren’t enough hours in the day.” Yes, I know you’re busy but whatever your excuse/reason is…you aren’t fit to deal with it effectively if you are not well. Period. Your kids need a healthy, rested parent. If you’re in school, you need to be alert and able to focus in order to learn. You see what I mean? So as you go about scheduling your time, planning your meals, debating if you should exercise…think about making your health the priority. Put it first and the rest will follow.

2) Eat good food.

No, I’m not talking about what you think tastes good…if that were the case I’d live on pizza, cheeseburgers and Starburst candy. While a lot of people seem to “eat whatever they want” and feel fine, those of us with chronic illness or autoimmune disease MUST be firing on all cylinders in order to have any hope of feeling well.

One of the things that was the MOST life-changing for me was this book right here:

The book is titled Clean and it essentially talks about the body’s ability to optimize health if you feed it and treat it properly. Note that I’m not saying that it’s a cure-all…but once I followed the three-week elimination diet proposed in this book, I learned that it was actually the FOOD I WAS EATING that was causing my horrible, debilitating joint pain. If you get the book, note that you can do the entire three-week cleanse without buying a single supplement or meal-replacement shake. I made my own smoothies, soups and meals using recipes on the Clean Program Support Forum, which you can find here: http://my.cleanprogram.com/forum.

Now, I know some of you are probably skeptical but bear with me. The only reason I can’t tell you which autoimmune disorder I have (had) is because I never went back to the rheumatologist. He got as far as “inflammatory arthritis” and wanted to start me on steroids (no thanks!). All my blood tests pointed toward rheumatoid arthritis or lupus…and since I knew I didn’t want to go down the road of harsh medications, I took matters into my own hands. Now, I am NOT a doctor and I do NOT recommend anyone STOP taking any prescribed medications. But, if you are serious about optimizing your health through diet and you suffer from an autoimmune disorder, I can also recommend one more book:

So when I talk about eating only “good food” here is what I mean:

  • No soy or wheat (this is different for everyone, but these two items are what trigger my joint pain the most and they are, in general, considered very pro-inflammation). Oh, and by the way, soy is in EVERYTHING.
  • No seed oils. I use coconut and olive oil only…there are other non-seed oils out there but they’re expensive so I don’t use them much. I find I can manage just fine with only coconut oil and olive oil for cooking and salads. Though I’ll occasionally have sunflower or safflower seed oil in some “health food” snack items, I try to limit it. Definitely no canola oil…it is toxic and very high in Omega-6 fatty acids (which are very pro-inflammatory).
  • No fast food. At all. Ever.
  • Organic produce where possible (and definitely the “Dirty Dozen“).
  • Emphasis on fresh fruits and vegetables, mostly raw
  • Minimal added sugar (or NO added sugar if you are super good at reading labels!)
  • Very little pre-packaged foods (I make 98% of my own food…I’ll buy snack bars, rice tortillas and hummus from Whole Foods but I always read the labels and don’t buy anything with inflammatory ingredients, chemicals or hidden wheat/soy.
  • Avoiding dairy (this one is hard for me, I admit…but dairy is also pro-inflammatory…sorry). I drink only almond milk which I make myself…it’s super simple and not full of carrageenan and other emulsifiers like store-bought almond milk (which actually contains very little almonds…go figure).
  • Very little grains…when I eat too many grains I bloat up like a balloon. Essentially the only grains I eat are these rice tortillas I get at Whole Foods…I make super yummy quesadillas using oil-free hummus, spinach, chicken and Daiya cheese…so good! Pretty much rice and quinoa are the only grains in my house, and they are NOT an everyday occurrence. Our meals are mostly veggies and protein…simple.

So what’s a busy nursing student or nurse to do? My advice is to keep meals SIMPLE.

  • Breakfasts: smoothies, fresh fruit and a hard-boiled egg (if they agree with you), veggie omelet, dairy-free yogurt (I love coconut milk yogurt…yum!)
  • Lunch: salads, the afore-mentioned quesadilla, hearty soups, protein with a side of roasted veggies
  • Dinner: pretty much the same as lunch 🙂
  • Snacks: dried mango, raw almonds, fresh walnuts, fruit, veggies and oil-free hummus (Haig’s is my favorite brand…or make your own!),

Note that your diet doesn’t have to be this restrictive…you can have PLENTY of variety following these general guidelines, but if you’re busy then you might want to keep things simple until life gives you a break! The idea is to eat a clean, whole-foods based diet…your body will thank you! And while it may not “cure” you of your chronic illness, I guarantee you’ll feel better overall. Give it a try and let me know how it goes!

3) Exercise

Yes, I know…when you hurt or are exhausted, exercise is usually the LAST thing on your list. I’m not talking about going to the gym for an hour a day. When I was so inflamed I could’t make a fist OR straighten my hands completely, couldn’t sit down on the floor or get up without help, or even walk down the stairs like a normal human being…I started doing yoga. I’ve actually been doing yoga for YEARS, but had taken a break when I started to feel sick. When I took my health into my own hands, I KNEW that I needed to move my joints if I was going to have any hope of mobility. So, I came up with a gentle yoga routine that I could do in 15 minutes and I did it religiously every single day. I also took walks around the lake near my house…basically gentle, low-impact exercise. And it helped…a lot. I’d start my yoga routine not even able to flatten my  hands on the floor and finish with my fingers amazingly stretched out flat…my mobility improved (this was in concurrence with my healthier diet) and soon I was able to sit on the floor and get up without holding onto a nearby chair for dear life.

Exercise also boosts your mood, improves circulation and helps you sleep better. So while the word “exercise” may make you think of lifting heavy weights or training for a marathon…just do what you can and do it with the goal of being KIND to yourself. The type of exercise you choose is up to you…if you can do nothing but walk, then walk! Or maybe swimming is easier on  your joints, or Tai-Chi calms your mind…explore and choose something you enjoy that makes you feel better. Simple.

Adjust your schedule

This tactic applies more to working RNs…there’s really no hope for a nursing student…the schedule is relentless and it’s something you probably have no control over. But if you’re working the standard nurse 12-hr shifts…arrange your schedule so you get rest days in between. Maybe this means never working more than one day at a time, or maybe you can handle doubles but not triples. Arrange your schedule in the way that gives you time to recharge and renew. When I was still really sick but back at work part-time, I never worked two days in a row. Now I work two-in-a-row and then one more day later on in the week. And I never never never never never pick up extra shifts. I don’t care how many times the unit calls with their pleas…my health is more important than ANY amount of overtime $$.

If you’re a student, I’d say the best thing  you can do is schedule your time carefully so that you can get to bed at a decent hour every night. My goal as a student was to be in bed by 11pm EVERY night and I always made it (if not earlier). In fact, if you want to know how I accomplished this, my book details my habits and study methods for that very purpose!

Consider transferring to another unit

If you work in an intense unit like I do, you might consider swallowing your pride and transferring to something less demanding. I currently work in a medical ICU and it puts the “intense” in “intensive care.” I stay because I love the complex patients, the teamwork and knowing I’m taking care of the sickest of the sick…and often seeing them turn the corner and get better (I love when this happens!) But I know that I’ll probably have to “slow down” at some point. Look around at other units or types of nursing to see if anything interests you. PACU, case management, tele nursing, palliative care and clinic nursing are all MUCH less demanding physically but still allow you to help others and learn something new every day.

Learn to say “no.”

Along the lines of never ever ever working extra shifts is the notion that sometimes we have to be okay with saying “no.” Gone are my days of scheduling myself to the hilt…I say no to all kinds of things…extra freelance writing work, social invitations, even family obligations. I’ve learned to be pretty stingy with my free time so that i have the TIME and ability to do things that help me optimize my health. If you’re a student, the first thing I’d recommend you say “no” to are group study sessions (my book explains why). If you’re a working parent, how about saying “no” to the million committees and extra-curricular activities that schools are always trying to rope you into? My friend’s school gives parents the option of participating or writing a check…every year she writes a check and moves on with her life.

I invite you to take a look at your commitments and seriously consider removing those things that bog you down, rob you of your energy, or simply do not bring you joy.

Rest and renew

Use your days off (or hours off if you’re one of those busy busy busy nursing students) to rest and renew. Try to do something EACH day that brings you joy (even if it’s just 5 minutes of playing with your dog) and aim to rest/renew as much as you can at least once a week. Nap when you feel tired, take a nice soak in the tub, sit outside with a good book, get a massage, go to a goofy movie, or head out for a fun evening with friends or your partner. Even if it’s just an hour or two each week, find a way to schedule R&R into your schedule.

My favorite R&R activities are walking on the trails by the lake, reading, sewing, spending time with my husband/friends, getting a massage and soaking in the tub/pool/hot tub (depending on the weather!). How do you renew? Is it going to church? Participating in a book club? Petting dogs and cats at the local shelter? Whatever it is, embrace it…it’s GOOD for you!


Since I’ve turned my focus from my career to ME, I’ve thrived. I’m as healthy as I can be with a chronic illness (or two), essentially symptom-free and feeling better than I have in YEARS! When I thought I’d have to stop being a nurse I became depressed, angry and felt such a huge sense of loss. I am so thankful to all the authors, bloggers and health advocates who shared their knowledge as I traveled the path toward wellness. I hope this post helps you do the same 🙂

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8 thoughts on “Being a nurse with a chronic illness

  1. Brandie

    I’m so glad you wrote this! I am currently a nursing student and I have IBS. When I was 18 my dad told me to become a nurse because he thought I would like it. I brushed him off because I thought having IBS meant I couldn’t be a nurse! I mean what if I had an emergency while in a patient’s room??? Now at the age of 27 I’m in nursing school and realize that my IBS while annoying is just something I have to deal with. Just because I have IBS doesn’t mean I cannot be a nurse! My IBS has gotten better; I think as I have gotten older I can deal with stress better and have learned what triggers it, etc. I’m always happy to see nurses who have conditions that can affect their lives still be successful nurses!

    Reply
    1. Nurse Mo Post author

      So proud of you for not letting your disease keep you from reaching your goals! That’s awesome! And yes, managing stress is HUUUGE with any kind of autoimmune disorder. Best of luck to you!

      Reply
    1. Nurse Mo Post author

      You are very welcome, Nicolette. I try to do my part to make the world a better place 😉 Seriously though…if I can help just one person, then I have met my goal for the day…thanks for your kind words.

      Reply
  2. Colleen

    Nurse Mo,I just want to thank you for being an inspiration and for the thoughtful words you shared. I have migraines with aura, osteoarthritis and Familial Hypercholesterolemia that I juggle,along with working full time while going to nursing school full time and my two teens,so I can fully attest to your post. Many hugs and thoughts for you and your journey❤️

    Reply
    1. Nurse Mo Post author

      Thanks Colleen…so many of us are struggling and since you can’t “see” a lot of illnesses, it’s easy to just assume everyone else is doing just fine. It’s good to reach out and share our support for one another….hang in there! I had migraine with aura before I was diagnosed and it was AWFUL! Now that my blood counts are under control, the migraines are gone, but I remember them vividly. So sorry you are suffering this (along with everything else). Take rest when you need it and be kind to yourself 🙂

      Reply
  3. Kim

    Enjoyed the read and will definitely use your tips and advise. I am a nursing student with breast cancer but doing well with my diagnosis ( finished chemo and had my mastectomy) so hopefully over the hard yards, decided after my medical condition for a career change at 37 to become a nurse and am looking forward to work hard and study hard to progress to be an oncology nurse in the future. Thank you for sharing your helpful tips.

    Reply
    1. Nurse Mo Post author

      Best of luck to you, Kim…sounds like you’ve done the hard part already. After what you’ve been through, nursing school should be a walk in the park! My most sincere wishes for your continued recovery. Please check back and let us know how it goes!

      Reply

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