The Dance of Courageous Care Step #1: Receive
I remember the moment I passed out, yet I could hear everything happening in my hospital room. I had six-month-old twins at home who were asleep with my partner, and I wasn’t sure if I would ever be able to hold my children again.
I had an ectopic pregnancy that had burst, and I was admitted to the telemetry unit. Unfortunately, I had no monitor on, and I started having excruciating pain as I was bleeding internally, causing my abdomen to distend. I pushed my call light, and when someone answered, I responded, “I need to go to surgery right now!”
I vaguely remember seeing my nurse. However, I remember her wild eyes as she tried to take my blood pressure and couldn’t get a reading. As I passed out, she called a Code Yellow. Although I had lost consciousness, I could still hear everything happening and feel when anyone touched my body. I remember being put in Trendelenburg and someone pulling down my gown for privacy. As my room began to fill with residents, doctors, and people from the lab, pharmacy, and EKG, I remember thinking, this is serious. Amid the chaos, my nurse grabbed my hand, leaned in, and whispered, “I am here, and you are going to be okay.” This moment changed my life. I have told this story many times, and I usually share that I was so grateful that she remembered me, my heart, and my soul and that it meant so much to me because I was so scared and couldn’t speak. This is all true; however, before this response occurred, another knee-jerk reaction happened. Something I have not shared so widely, yet just recently I am realizing that this unshared part of the story may be the most important part.
I have been a nurse for over 22 years and have been the primary caregiver for my family since a young child. Growing up, I helped care for my brother, who was born with spina bifida and had over 20 surgeries before he was five. I cared for my mother for many years before she passed away at age 49 from cancer, and I cared for my sister, who suddenly became a quadriplegic at the age of 26 from a non-traumatic brain injury. I am a wife and a mother to twins who are now seven, almost eight, and I consider it my greatest gift and privilege to care for and be their momma. I started my career early, around 17 years old, as a CNA and worked on telemetry for four years before returning to school to become a nurse, where I worked nights, days, peds, telemetry, NICU, ER, and infusion. All this to say, I have spent my entire life caring for my family, patients, and my patients' family. Who I am as a woman, mother, sister, wife, and daughter is intimately intertwined with my identity as a caregiver and nurse.
Back to the story, I passed out, everyone entered my room, and my nurse grabbed my hand and said, “I am here, and you are going to be okay.” My first gut reaction was to pull my hand back. I remember thinking, "Why is she holding my hand? This is kind of embarrassing. I am fine. I don’t need her to care for me; I’m good. Plus, how does she know I am going to be okay? Isn’t Nursing 101 not to say that to someone unless you know they will be okay?" I was not used to being the person receiving care, and it felt very unnatural for me and extremely hard and overwhelming to receive. After this passed through my mind within a second, I remember thinking, “Tara, you could be dying right now. You may never see your children or loved ones again. It is okay to let her care for you.” While feeling so critical of how she was trying to care for me, I eventually softened into her hand and allowed myself to receive her care. This is the moment that changed my life and the trajectory of my career. Allowing myself to receive and feel her care in the scariest moment of my life changed me forever.
Courageous Care: When We Receive and Soften Together, We Experience Healing and Joy
The first part of courageous care is to receive. As my scary near-death experience illustrates, it was difficult for me as a nurse, woman, mother, or human to receive care, even when I was dying. Receiving care is something I never entirely understood as I was growing up, and even now, it is difficult to do as I am so used to being the one to care for everyone else. Sometimes I wonder if it is so hard to receive care because I don’t always fully allow myself to receive the pain and suffering I am in. I refuse to go there. When my fallopian tube was bursting, and I was starting to pass out, I remember thinking as my nurse grabbed my hand, “I’m good. I got this. Why is she trying to comfort me right now?” Once I allowed myself to grasp all that I was carrying at that moment, all the fear, all the possible tragedy, I allowed myself to receive and soften in her hand.
How often do we downplay all that we are holding? All the grief and loss of the last few years working as a nurse? All the grief of losing our family members? All the ways we have been called to care for our families and others on a daily, non-stop basis?
Receiving care is vital to our existence as humans and even more so to our existence as nurses. Our biology has taught us that to exhale, we must first inhale and fill our lungs with oxygen to ensure our heart and organs are satisfied before we are allowed to exhale this air back out to others. Whenever we inhale, we practice the art of receiving care for ourselves. What would happen if you begin to name what you are doing every time you notice your breath by stating as I breathe in, I am receiving care for myself right now. See, I believe receiving care is a practice, and it takes a very courageous part of ourselves to be vulnerable enough to soften, receive, and hold the hand that is trying to hold ours. In the past, receiving care felt like a weakness, and I never wanted anyone to know I couldn’t handle it all alone. However, as I grow older, I realize that when we allow ourselves to receive care, we create new neural pathways in our brains that remind us we are worthy of care as we care for others.
We are worthy of care because we are here, alive, and human, and our worth and identity are not dependent upon how much we can take on and care for others without asking for help. I have realized that when I do not receive care, I am more worried about my identity and how I look as a caregiver versus how I am caring for others. When we work from a place of burnout and overwhelm, we do a disservice to all we care for.
When I dance with a partner, the giving and receiving are so fluid it is hard to see who is giving and who is receiving. The energy flows so evenly between us as we exchange weight and utilize each other to balance. Even as I dance alone, I see how I need to allow my legs to receive as I plie (bend) before I leap. The dance of courageous are is vital to our survival as humans, and allowing ourselves to receive care takes so much courage. courageous care is a radical way to shift how we understand care and how we can impact others when we first receive care for ourselves. This is different from self-care; this is not something we do alone but in relationship with others as we find and sometimes even create spaces to be cared for. Let us normalize nurses receiving care, resting, and experiencing joy.
As we think about receiving as the first step of courageous care, I wonder what it would look like if we journaled about the following questions:
- What are all the ways you are actively spending time caring for others in a day, in a week?
- What are all the ways that you are actively receiving care from yourself and others in a day or week?
- Does receiving care come easy for you? Why or why not?
- Share a story about a time you allowed yourself to be cared for and what the impact was for you.
I would love to receive your stories and responses to these questions if you would like to share them with me at firstname.lastname@example.org. I hope you do. Thank you for holding and receiving my story, and may we open ourselves up this week to receive care and name it when it happens. Receiving care is a big deal, and naming it helps us celebrate as we courageously care for ourselves and others.
Tara Rynders, The Dancing Nurse Educator and Nightingale Luminary is the CEO and Founder of The Clinic, an arts, and play-based immersive theater company that offers workshops and keynotes to create more sustainable, (Re)Brilliant, and equitable healthcare systems.