Nursing School Almost Killed Me

I was watching a TED talk a few days ago, and it talked about the “WHY” and how important it is to know the “WHY” if you want to make a meaningful connection with your audience. I’ve known all along why I created this site and why I put so much time and energy into creating educational content for students…I thought it would be good to share the WHY with all of you.

Reading the title of this post,  you may think I’m exaggerating…or grasping at straws, or trying to blame myself for things outside of my control. But I don’t think so. You see, in the past five years I’ve done a lot of research and reading into chronic stress, inflammation and the role this plays in our health. And the fact of the matter is, I was healthy, vibrant and absolutely fine until my second year of pre-requisites. It was then that I started having symptoms that I chalked up to things like dehydration and low blood sugar. It turns out, there was a much more ominous reason for my misery.

Most of you don’t know me (except through this site), so it may be difficult for me to convey just how intensely I pursued my dream of being a nurse. It consumed me. As an older student, I didn’t feel I had the time to wait 2 or more years to get into a lottery-system ADN program, and I knew that the BSN program in my hometown was fiercely competitive. If I was going to have any shot at all of changing careers, I knew I had to be a “Straight A” student all the way. And I was. But I paid a price for that…a huge one.

Not only did I study incessantly, but I also stressed constantly about my grades, learning the material, doing perfect “knock-their-socks-off” projects and presentations. I ignored friends, I ignored family, and most unfortunate of all, I ignored myself. I used to have an incredibly healthy diet, was in excellent physical condition, had wonderful balance in my life, and a social calendar full of fun activities with friends. But I let all that go in pursuit of my dream. My diet suffered, my exercise disappeared, my joy plummeted and soon the only thing that brought me pleasure was getting that “A.” I was obsessed, unhealthy, and stressed to the max.

The first sign that something was wrong was that I began having headaches. Incredible, mind-numbing headaches accompanied by blurred vision that made it nearly impossible to do anything except lay down in a dark room with my eyes closed. The first ones I remember occurred during a summer school session of A&P 2. I attributed my symptoms to simply being dehydrated, and treated myself with lots of water and Excedrin Migraine pills. I once had a headache so debilitating, I had to ask the professor if I could go to the bathroom in the middle of an exam. Normally this would be an absolute “no,” but he took one look at me and granted me permission to leave the test. I must have looked awful.

On another occasion, about eight months later, I had another blockbuster of a headache. I was in Organic Chemistry class and had to leave halfway into the lecture. You have to understand I had never ever missed a minute of class…so for me to leave was pretty monumental. I remember driving home, so out of it and with such blurred vision that it was all I could to to stay between the lines. When I got home, I called the advice nurse and from the questions she asked, she was clearly trying to decide if I was having a hemorrhagic stroke. But at the time, I didn’t know anything about “the worst headache of your life” or blurred vision or generalized weakness…so I laid down, drank my water, took my Excedrin and waited for it to go away. Which it did. Eventually.

After that, I noticed that whenever I was a bit dehydrated, I’d experience blurred vision. Sometimes with the headache, often without. It became more of a nuisance than anything and the headaches weren’t frequent enough that I seriously did anything about it. I mentioned them to my GP, but there wash’t any followup. And so it went.

Eventually I graduated nursing school, stressed about the NCLEX, passed NCLEX, stressed about finding a job, and found a job. In the ICU. In an ICU that had not hired a new employee in at least ten years. And certainly not a new grad. To say I was stressed was an understatement. During this time, I started having other strange symptoms…my big toe of my left foot would occasionally feel like it was on fire, I was extremely tired all the time, my heart would feel like it was pounding, and the headaches and blurred vision continued. I even had angina during yoga class. It scared me, but it passed so I soldiered on. At this time I knew a lot more about pathophysiology and knew something was wrong, but could not figure it out. But I was so focused on the new job with its intense orientation, that I once again ignored my own needs in pursuit of my goal to be Super Nurse.

It was around this time that I had my regular checkup with my OB/GYN Nurse Practitioner, Nurse Gail. I will forever be thankful to her for doing something no doctor had ever done. I requested a lipid panel as I hadn’t had one done in several years and she recommended we do a full CBC and chemistry panel as well. Yes, a simple blood test is what finally got me on the path of figuring out what was wrong. If Nurse Gail hadn’t ordered that test, there’s no telling where I’d be right now…likely disabled or possibly even dead. So, I went off to the lab, got my blood drawn and looked forward to seeing if my cholesterol was as fabulous as it had been during my pre-nursing days. I didn’t even begin to consider that something would be wrong with my CBC. But something was.

The first test showed a Hbg of 17.1, a Hct of 51.8 and PLT at 859. Clearly something was out of whack. Of course, the first thought is that the sample was faulty somehow, so I went in for another draw. This was was even worse, with Hbg at 17.2, Hct at 51.9 and PLTs the same. I self-diagnosed myself as iron-deficient (don’t ask how I got there…I have no idea!) and tried eating more meat. Well, that didn’t work as my next draw ten days later showed Hbg 18, Hct an astonishing 52.8 and PLT 922. I was a walking time bomb. With blood that thick and platelets that high, I was at immense risk for a thrombotic event of some kind. I was immediately referred to a hematologist/oncologist and sent to the infusion center at Kaiser to have some of that extra blood drained off in a procedure called a phlebotomy.

phlebotomy

My veins needed lots of warming up at my first phlebotomy. I think they were hiding…I was really scared here but my friend Kerry came with me 🙂

polycythemia vera

See that stopcock? The blood was so thick it barely flowed through the tubing so they had to keep flushing the line. Imagine that thick blood trying to get through my brain…no wonder I had headaches!

phlebotomy

Almost done with my first phlebotomy. They had to poke me a few times 🙁

polycythemia phlebotomy

Second time getting my vampire action on…an old pro!

The point of a phlebotomy is to get the Hbg/Hct down to safe levels so the blood can flow freely through the body while reducing the risk of a clot. I ended up having three phlebotomies while I worked with my oncologist to figure out what was wrong and what we were going to do about it. After loads of lab draws and tests, I was eventually diagnosed with one of the myeloproliferative neoplasms (MPNs). These chronic blood cancers involve an overproduction of blood cells and can vary from just the platelets to all the cell lines. In my case it is the platelets and red blood cells, so my particular MPN is polycythemia vera. If you’ve learned about PV in school, you have probably read some pretty scary statistics about life expectancy of 10 years and so on and so forth. Luckily, there has been loads more research since those stupid statistics were published, and many of us with MPNs live normal lives as long as we keep our blood counts under control and we don’t progress to myelofibrosis or acute myeloid leukemia, a fear I live with every day (knock on wood, please!).

Since having my diagnosis made in 2011, I’ve been taking interferon and have been able to decrease my dosage from weekly to every three weeks. The side effects, though manageable, have certainly affected my life. Namely I’m more tired than I should be…it’s either the meds or the disease…either way it’s kind of annoying and I am working really hard at increasing my stamina by working on my fitness and diet. At this time, I can manage working two 12-hr shifts a week, as long as I have rest days in between. I also lost a lot of hair, but now that I’ve decreased my dose of interferon I am happy to report that it is growing back 🙂 It’s not back to it’s full glory, but I’ll take it!

Looking back, I can’t definitively say that nursing school led to my impaired health, though there is growing evidence that chronic stress and inflammation wreak havoc on the body (including leading to cancer). However, I can definitely say that had I not been so focused on school I would have paid closer attention to myself, seen a doctor sooner and been diagnosed years earlier. The fact that I didn’t have a thrombotic event is somewhat of a miracle and something I am thankful for every single day.

So, that leads me to the WHY. I created this site as a way to help nursing students get through their programs with their sanity (and health) intact. And despite the title of this website, it’s not about getting all A’s. Being a “Straight A” nursing student is about learning the material, taking excellent care of your patients, and taking excellent care of yourself. If my notes, resources, tips and study guides help you do these three things, then I have accomplished what I set out to do.

Thanks for all your emails and comments…I love seeing how this site is helping you get through your programs. And as always, be safe out there!

10 thoughts on “Nursing School Almost Killed Me

  1. IrinK

    I found your website by accident and I’m so happy I did. Tons of useful and helpful information here! Thank you so much for sharing it with us, but most importantly thank you for sharing your story… I could not imagine! Those who are in nursing school by definition are confident, intelligent, and determined to excel. And we oftentimes do neglect our health in pursuit of the big dream. I confess that I’m guilty at that myself. Your post made me think and remember to remain a human with needs, not a super hero.
    I’m too wishing you to regain your health, stay fit and happy!

    Reply
    1. Nurse Mo Post author

      Thanks Irin…and yes, self-care is the most important thing (but often hard to remember on a day-to-day basis). Hope school is going well!!

      Reply
  2. Rhona

    Wishing you excellent health. I can tell you are a workaholic so hope you take some time and enjoy the summer and life. You work too hard not to.

    I have to admit that you are right about self fare and ns. I have not started yet but I was in pre health and just finished a month ago. I strived so hard for perfection that I often felt very out of sorts. I was constantly tired and nervous and just feeling grouchy. And, the headaches! On the last day of exams, I remember saying to myself, I really need to go running or something. All that sitting down is so unnatural and I didn’t notice (too busy was I sitting and studying for 7 months) that my poor body was begging for a stretch. I promise myself that if I do get into NS (waiting for replies from schools as marks released last week), I will do yoga daily, no matter what. It helps me relax and feel less anxious (something I really have a big problem with). Also, I will continue coming to your site. You have no idea how much I love this blog.
    Oh yes, will we be getting an insight into your current schooling? Um, I think you are doing a masters?!

    Reply
    1. Nurse Mo Post author

      Thanks Rhona…
      I am currently re-thinking getting my masters. I am not sure I want to teach at a college. The hours are so demanding and I just know that at this stage in my life I need my “me time.” I will most likely focus on teaching through this website and by precepting students in clinical.

      Stick with the yoga!! Your body, mind and spirit will all thank you!

      Reply
  3. dee

    Nurse Mo, I pray for a miraculous healing on your body and continuous growth in your success! You’ve made a huge difference in so many lives. I’ve followed you for about a year now & have purchased some of your products. I admire your compassion for others.
    I too, suffer with a great deal of stress &anxiety- as I work a full-time, stressful job, with a husband & 2 young children- with a constant desire to please everyone :(. I too started experiencing those symptoms (headaches and low blood sugar, sudden weakness& and an on going chest pain) around my second year of prereqs; A&P. It’s so easy to care for others and keep pushing our personal NEEDS aside; although after reading your post, I’m going to work on “Me” and start dealing with my health (I may just be ranting b/c it’s summer break {lol} & I’ll have a little time to do so) but you’ve really made me see things in a different light after reading this post. Thank you so much! Many blessings to you!!!!!

    Reply
    1. Nurse Mo Post author

      Self-care is SO IMPORTANT! I can’t stress that enough! I’m glad you are recognizing it long before I did. Best of luck to you and take care 🙂

      Reply
  4. Brian

    I’ve been having mild headaches almost daily with motion induced loss of balance. It’s been hard just to drive to school. I’m gonna check my Cbc this weekend at work (I’m a lab tech).

    Reply
    1. Nurse Mo Post author

      Did you find out anything? You might want to contact your doc…could be something totally innocent like vertigo. Hope you feel better soon!

      Reply

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