Sunday, January 31, 2010

Raising the Dead

It was in the late 1970's; I'd been out of nursing school and working nights in the Intensive Care Unit long enough to feel confident in my skills and comfortable in the face of the mysterious events that happened there, a place of extraordinary illness and extraordinary healing. Within the confines of that small, seven-bed unit, amazing things happened all the time: patients who should have died recovered without a hitch; others, who should have recovered, slipped out of our grasp.

This particular occurrence--the strangest of them all--happened at the edges of my professional life. I observed this story from a clinical distance, as if I were eavesdropping, peeking around the corner into the lives of others. The care of this patient, a young woman in her early twenties, had been assigned not to me but to other nurses. While I often helped her primary nurse with the duties of bathing, turning and suctioning, I remained mostly at the periphery. I was a compassionate and, eventually, an awe-struck witness.

I don't recall if it was some catastrophic illness or an accident that brought this young woman to Intensive Care. I remember that she was, even in her coma, even with the endotracheal tube distorting her mouth and her features, beautiful. If memory serves me, her hair was long and dark; her nurses would braid it or rubber-band it into two ponytails. I never saw her father, but her mother was ever present at the bedside, praying and talking and holding her daughter's hand. Not a nurse herself, perhaps not even familiar with any part of our medical world, this mother nevertheless guarded her daughter fiercely. No one drew blood, gave a medication, changed a ventilator setting or came within two feet of her daughter's body without being questioned: Why are you drawing more blood? What is the medication you're giving her? Are you giving her more oxygen today or less? Is this treatment really necessary? I overheard, more than once, this mother's calm but decisive, no, you're not doing that. I saw, more than once, usually taciturn doctors take their time to explain what was happening and why.

I'm not sure if the patient's mother ever went home to rest. She seemed to be there, sitting with her daughter, whether I was working my usual night shift or picking up an extra day or evening shift. As I cared for my own patients, looking through the clear glass partitions that separated one patient from another, I watched this young woman's heart line, a red tracing leaping across the cardiac monitor, and I could see the erratic blood pressure readings that sometimes dropped so low I wondered if she was dying, and other times rose so high I was sure a stroke was imminent. After the second week, when there was no change in her condition, the doctors that came and went from her bedside grew grim and, perhaps to protect themselves, began to spend more time with the chart and less time with the patient. Then one day, after a huddle of doctors in their white coats had gathered around the bedside, hiding both the patient and her mother from my sight, I heard a cry of anguish followed by an explosion of anger: No, the mother shouted. No, you will not take her off the respirator.

A few days later, when I came in at eleven for the beginning of my night shift, the patient and her mother were gone. Had the mother relented and allowed the doctors to take away the tubes and machines that were, apparently, keeping her daughter alive and breathing? No, the charge nurse said. The mother refused to let her daughter be taken off life support and so the hospital discharged her to a long-term rehab hospital in New York, ventilator and all. A few of the nurses shook their heads and said things like if it were my daughter, I'd have let her go. Who wants to live like a vegetable?

I didn't say anything. Even though keeping this patient on life support seemed to fly in the face of all medical advice, and even though the mother's decision to cling to her daughter's life seemed based solely on intuition--a mother's intuition--I silently agreed with her. I hoped that, if necessary, I would have that mother's courage and faith, even if, after all, the eventual outcome was uncertain. The mother's words--it's only been two weeks; can't we wait to be sure--stayed with me.

A year later, when I was no longer working in ICU but putting in my time on the oncology unit, I heard the final outcome of this story. I met a nurse, a colleague from Intensive Care, in the cafeteria. She asked if I remembered the young woman patient and her mother. Sure, I said. Who could forget?

"Apparently," my friend went on, "the patient went to a rehab hospital where she stayed on the vent for another week. No one could talk the mother into extubating her. She kept insisting that her daughter would recover. Then one day, the daughter squeezed her mother's hand and a few days later opened her eyes. It took months of physical therapy and occupational therapy, but"--here my friend paused and popped a French fry into her mouth--"guess what? She and her mother walked into the unit yesterday to say hello. Pretty wild, right?"

I've thought about that young woman and her mother many times in the years since I stood across the unit, watching them. Why did this patient survive when it seemed, according to all medical indicators, that her life was over? How could she be labeled "hopeless" one day and, a few weeks later, open her eyes and begin her life all over again? And what if--how frightening to think this--what if the mother had said yes, let's take out the tube and let my child go? What if we caregivers, relying on whatever we think is the most up-to-date information of our time, consign a patient to die when, with a bit more time and vigilance--and perhaps a lot more faith--we might witness a different outcome? How do we know? How do we ever know?

I wonder about my own conviction in the face of what might seem to be the overwhelming medical evidence presented to me if I were sitting vigil at a loved one's bedside. I can only hope that I would be like that mother, resolute and ever on watch, not prolonging a life indiscriminately but also not abandoning life too soon. And now that so many years have gone by, now that I've seen so many miracles during my long nursing career, I also look at this story from the young woman's point of view: when I'm the patient, will there be someone who loves me enough, trusting in the grace that lies beyond our medical knowledge, to wait to be sure? Will there be someone there to honor my life in just that way?

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Where Did All Those Babies Go?

It was 1972, and I was a nursing student in the final months of my training, eagerly awaiting graduation and the beginning of my real life as a nurse. I don’t recall the time of year exactly, but it must have been early spring, just warm enough to come to work without a cardigan. I know this because I remember thinking how oppressive it was in that closet, the one where my patient awaited me; I remember thinking that it was a good thing I didn’t bring a sweater.
The closet that housed my patient was simply that—a linen closet with a stainless steel rack that held piles of sheets and jonny coats, pillow cases and Chux. This rack had been shoved to the side to make room for the single isolette that stood just inside the closet door. A small crib with a thin mattress and an extra bumper, it held a newborn infant, a boy, who slept on and on. There was no card attached to the front of the isolette proclaiming his date of birth, his weight, or his name. I called him Baby Boy, although they told me I shouldn’t get attached to him. I sang and hummed to him, although they told me he couldn’t hear.
When he wasn’t being tended by me or one of the other nursing students who, during the day, were assigned his care, Baby Boy’s closet door was closed and the light was turned off, leaving him alone in the quiet dark. When I protested, I was told that he couldn’t see and so the light being left on or off made no difference. When I asked about his mother, the nurse in charge hushed me. It’s a tragedy, was all she would say. It took us students some time and quite a bit of snooping to discover that his mother’s room was just down the hall on the other side of the maternity ward. We learned that her baby boy had been whisked away at birth, before she awoke from anesthesia. We learned that the doctors had told her, at her husband’s urging, that the baby was stillborn. She’d never seen her boy, never held him; and she didn’t know that he was only a short walk away, left in a closet until, as the charge nurse said, “Nature took its course.” Sometimes we students ambled past the mother’s room, peeking in to see her face. We talked about how we might go in and let her know that her baby wasn’t dead at all; we said, what if she had a chance to hold him?
Looking back, I assume that we were assigned Baby Boy’s care because he was considered a lost cause—even bumbling nursing students couldn’t cause him any more harm. And he required minimal care: diapering and turning. No vital signs were to be taken. Water was to be offered but no sucking response was anticipated. The medical staff expected the baby to die within hours. But two, three, four days later, he lived on.
When I first saw him, I was only mildly taken aback. Well warned by the charge nurse, I expected the baby to be some sort of monster, born “without a brain” as she said, “with nothing left but a face and a body.” Instead, I saw an infant with a strangely compressed forehead, eyes tightly closed, and perfectly chiseled lips and chin. Although his face was prominent, he did in fact have what seemed to be a near-normal sized skull, only steeply sloped and covered with fine blond hair. He looked, from some angles, like an elderly wizened man. If I turned him just a bit, he looked like a peacefully sleeping infant. Did he respond to my holding and rocking? I thought he did. Did his lips and cheeks respond to the nipple, to the bottle of water I offered? I believed they did. When I asked the charge nurse if I could please try some formula, that I thought he might take it, she said she would ask the doctor but she doubted he’d be unwilling to prolong the inevitable. On the second day, Baby Boy began to cry, a high pitched, hungry, agonizing whine. Okay, the nurse said, try some formula. But although his lips smacked and his cheeks tried to suck, most of the formula dribbled out of his mouth.
When the keening persisted, some of the nurses worried that his mother might hear and, responding to some primal recognition, try to investigate—why were such haunting sounds coming from behind the closed linen closet door? They moved her further down the hall, and the next day the doctors sent her home. I wondered how long it took her to stop crying over a baby she’d never seen. I wondered how her husband lived with the knowledge that he’d left their newborn boy in the hospital where it was taking what the doctors called “way too long to die.”
No, the doctors told me. No intravenous. And a feeding tube was out of the question.

I first cared for Baby Boy on a Wednesday. Thursday he cried, and Friday he seemed to settle into a resigned stupor. His mouth worked in the pantomime of nursing. His fists curled and uncurled. His eyelids—did I imagine this?—opened and his eyes wandered about, searching. I never asked what happened to him on the off-shifts, on evenings or nights. Did the aides have time to rock him, to sing to him? When I returned to the maternity floor on Monday, the linen closet held only linen. Baby Boy had died, unattended, sometime during the afternoon on Saturday, in the fifth day of his age. He died before the time of grief counseling and support. He died before the time when his parents would hold him; when a nurse would wrap him in receiving blankets and photograph him; when another nurse would clip a lock of his hair and tie it in a blue ribbon. He died before we understood how necessary it is for parents, siblings and grandparents to gather together to welcome such a child, and then to accompany him gently to his death.
I don’t know what happened to Baby Boy’s body. At the time, I never thought to ask. At the time, I never thought that such disregard for life, such secrecy, such denial of the reality of grief, was all that unusual. It wasn’t until years later that I wondered, as I do now, where all those babies went, all those who were not whole, not perfect. Were there other closets in other hospitals where infants, abandoned as hopeless, were tended by other nursing students who sang to babies who could not hear, and loved babies who would not survive? Today, when genetic testing is so common early in pregnancy, these babies are too often “weeded out,” denied not only sustenance and love but also life itself—even if that life would be brief and seemingly insignificant. But I wonder, how many lives did Baby Boy touch from within the small space of his life, during the few days he spent in the dark, never held by his parents, never loved except by some awkward students? But here I am, all these years later, writing about him. If he only touched one life, one soul, wasn’t that enough? And even if, during his brief life, he never touched anyone, still, he had a soul—and wasn’t that enough?

Monday, May 18, 2009

My Double Life

Until a few years ago, I led a double life. Not easy, that going back and forth between acting like the woman everyone thought I was and yet wanting to be openly the woman I had become. The conversation that tipped me off to the reality of my double life went like this:
“So,” my nurse practitioner friend said. “Can you believe that they’re still trying to push abstinence education in the schools? Kids don’t need abstinence; they need birth control and easy access to abortion.” She looked at me, sure of my agreement. “Well?” she asked.

I hesitated. Should I tell her that I actually did support teaching teens about abstinence and that I was, in fact, not in favor of “easy access” to abortion? If I said what I really thought, would she look at me and, in an eye blink, see me not as her colleague and friend but as an enemy—someone she might label a right-wing, pro-life kook? I didn’t want to get into an argument. And I certainly didn’t want to be labeled a kook.

For most of my adult life, I’d viewed abortion as a woman’s right. As a nurse practitioner, I’d worn a button on my lab coat that said “Pro-choice!” When I wasn’t working I wrote about my work, and my published poems and books reflected my “feminist” stance. But during my eighteen years in women’s health, my views on what is truly pro-woman had changed; alas, my courage had not kept pace with my beliefs.

For years I’d remained silent regarding my feelings about abortion for a variety of reasons: unwillingness to judge others; desire to fit in with the caregiving community; fear of job repercussions; and fear of challenging the view of our takes-abortion-for-granted society. Yet at the same time I wondered how many other caregivers had experienced a change of heart about abortion. Were there others who, like me, were leading double lives; others who were against abortion in their minds and hearts but who, like me, remained silent?

My own change of heart was fostered by patients who chose abortions, by my direct participation in their abortions, and by the advances made in perinatal medicine during my years in women’s health. Many of the women who came to the clinic asking for abortions told me they felt they were choosing something, as one woman said, “terribly wrong.” Often, they mourned the loss of their pregnancies even before the abortions had been accomplished; some asked if they would ever forgive themselves. Many were propelled into choosing abortion by the inability to find an alternative solution. And we clinicians in the clinic did little to help them. After all, we’d been taught to tell women that twelve-week pregnancies were nothing more than a “bunch of cells”; we were taught to turn the ultrasound monitor away so that a woman couldn’t see her unborn baby. “If she sees it,” one doctor told me, “she might change her mind.”
I saw women who, after their abortions, were not relieved, but grieving. Some were downright angry. Many felt their pre-termination counseling had been rushed; some felt they hadn’t been given enough information about other options. More than one woman returned dismayed that no one had explained to her exactly "what we would be aborting." Until going online and searching out photos of fetal development, these women had no idea of what a five to twelve-week fetus “was like.” These women—and many more—felt that we, the doctors and the nurses, had not been honest with them and had not fully revealed what abortion entails.

There were also women who did not express any grief following their abortions. And yet many of these women sensed that there was something about abortion that wasn’t natural. I saw women who, after several abortions, decided to keep the next unintended pregnancy although their financial and social situations had not changed. They simply felt they “couldn’t do this again.” One woman decided against abortion when an ultrasound confirmed she was pregnant with twins. Her exact words were "I couldn’t kill two of them." I saw women who were torn between their maternal instincts and their life circumstances. We caregivers said, “You have to do what is right for you at this time in your life.” Even as I spoke those words, I sensed how wrong, how against God and nature, that advice was.

I wondered why we tried so hard to preserve a woman’s choice to abort but invested so little energy in helping women who might choose, against difficult odds, to keep a pregnancy. I wondered why we didn’t give women complete information about the termination procedure, the stage of fetal development of their pregnancies, and the local pregnancy centers that could help them to keep their pregnancies. I wondered why we didn’t listen to those women who were plunged into sadness, guilt, grief and remorse after their abortions.

During my years in women’s health, I also discovered that it’s much easier to be pro-choice when one is not actually participating in abortions. For many of my pro-choice years, I’d never seen an abortion and had little idea what was involved in abortion; my "being pro-choice" was merely giving easy lip service to the feminist (and society's) mantra. But working in women’s health, eventually I did participate in abortion; I did learn what abortions were all about. I participated by inserting laminaria, the cervical dilators often placed the day before a woman’s abortion, thus beginning the then-unstoppable progression to pregnancy termination. One day, when I’d inserted one laminaria after another, it struck me that while some women might have had several abortions, I’d participated in so many more. How many babies, I asked myself, had I helped to abort?

My conversion to being pro-life was also supported by the astounding advances made in fetal medicine over my years in women's health. The gestational age of viability crept down from twenty-eight or twenty-nine weeks to twenty-four weeks or less. We identified women whose fetuses had operable defects and sent these women to perinatal centers where specialists operated on the babies, still in the womb. With these advances, I began truly to understand the miracle of pregnancy. Scientifically, I knew that life begins at conception; emotionally, I understood that fertility is a gift and that the ability to bear children is not to be taken lightly. I’d already realized that we were not serving women by withholding the true details of abortion from them. Soon, whenever I had to insert a laminaria, my hands began trembling. What was I doing? How could I participate in a procedure that was, more and more clearly, against God, against natural law, against reason, and against my own belief?

My final “conversion” came in a flash when I knew, at a gut level, that I would not—that I could not—any longer sanction the taking of human life, not even when that human life was at the earliest stages of development, and not even when a mother insisted on her "right" to abort her unborn child. My conversion occurred on a sunny Friday afternoon when I walked into the doctor’s conference room and found, lying on the table, a pathology lab report clipped to a patient’s chart. There before me, in black and white, was the lab report of that patient's abortion. The pathologist had, after carefully reassembling the fetal parts pulled apart in the abortion process (a gruesome necessity in order to make sure that the doctor had “gotten it all”), listed the “products of conception,” the visible remains of that twelve-week fetus: the skull, the intestines, the fetal arms and hands (five fingers on each), a hip and leg, the other leg, the right fetal foot measuring one centimeter. Reading that lab report, knowing that we humans have somehow sanctified and approved the choice to murder our unborn, something changed within me at the deepest level.

Then, only a few months later, I came across these words written by Mother Theresa:
"The so-called right to abortion has pitted mothers against their children and women against men. It has sown violence and discord at the heart of the most intimate human relationships. It has aggravated the derogation of the father's role in an increasingly fatherless society. It has portrayed the greatest of gifts—a child—as a competitor, an intrusion, and an inconvenience."

When I looked about me, both in the clinic and in our society, the truth of her words was undeniable. In the end, becoming pro-life was not simply a matter of science, not simply a matter of grieving women or perinatal advances—it was a matter of faith.
I am deeply and personally aware of the very real difficulties of single parenthood, abuse and poverty. I’ve been there. As a nurse, I’m intimately aware of the tragedy of rape. But I know that abortion is not the answer to these societal blights. Still, our society—one that has been lulled into accepting, among other atrocities, the torture and humiliation of prisoners of war—has a very long way to journey until we establish a culture that helps women find alternatives to abortion.

Through casual conversation and earnest dialogue, I've learned that many nurses and doctors feel the same way that I do about abortion. Within hospital halls, it's acceptable, even honorable, to be pro-choice; how difficult, radical and unpopular it is to hold an opposing view! As I did, many caregivers are leading double lives, keeping their true thoughts about the tragedy of abortion a secret, afraid to speak the truth at their work places or in the public sphere. In their hearts, minds and souls they are desiring the culture of life. And yet, in their work, they are aiding the culture of death. As I once did, they are leading double lives. Maybe you are too. Maybe you too can change your life.

Monday, February 16, 2009

Sexuality and the soul

It has been over a year since my last post--at that time I signed off, saying good-bye and assuming I wouldn't be back. Something told me not to delete my blog, however, and now I'm happy I didn't.

But my more than a year of Not-Blogging was good. Not-Blogging gave me time to finish three books and see one to publication and two to acceptances that will lead to publications. Not-Blogging let me think about things but not have to formulate opinions or create text. Not-Blogging gave me some free time after the book's publication as well. (The book is "The Heart's Truth: Essays on the Art of Nursing" from Kent State University Press.) But so much is happening in the world that I thought it might be time to begin again.

First of all, it took me some time to figure out how to get into my blog. I cleverly assumed I'd recall all the steps and passwords. Ha! (But now I've written them down.) Next of all, there are so many things to blog about that I'm not sure where to begin. I've been attending the Latin Mass faithfully at a parish in Norwalk, CT. that offers the Extraordinary Form with reverence and obedience. I'm rejoicing that the Pope has lifted the excommunications on the four SSPX Bishops. My entrance into the Catholic Faith was guided by a young SSPX priest, and my catechism was among the very best (oh, to remember everything I learned!). I've written about this wonderful period of time with Fr. B. in several of my earliest posts. Now I'm praying that the SSPX and the Pope will be able to come to consensus about the other issues that are keeping the Society on the outskirts of Rome. Truly if it wasn't for the priests of the SSPX and their dedication to the Latin Mass, I'm not sure this Mass would have survived the years between Vatican II and today. We owe them our gratitude and prayers.

I'm also about to embark on training to be a Creighton Model practitioner. The Creighton Model is a wonderful, natural method of fertility control (both to postpone and to encourage pregnancy) that involves no chemicals and no risk of abortifacient action, such as we find with the pill and other chemical methods of birth control. This will be an exciting adventure, and I have no idea where it will lead me. And being naturally timid about my abilities, I'm nervously approaching the week's seminar hoping my memory will not fail me and I will pass all the tests!

But I suppose the thing that tugs at me the most is my feeling, my steadily growing feeling, that our young women today are in serious trouble. Not all of them; but many of them.
Standing near to my young women patients in the health center where I work as a nurse practitioner, I have two strong and somewhat creepy feelings: that the women are innocent and yet, at the same time, that they are unwittingly being led to sin by our society and by the secularization of so many of our churches. Can one be both innocent and sinning at the same time? I assume that these women are unaware that their actions are against the dignity of God. And I believe in the reality of the devil. I don't for a moment doubt that he sees, in our society and in our young people, a wonderful opportunity to do his terrible work.

So what are these young women doing that worries me? They are, almost all of them, on the pill or another form of birth control; they are unaware of the very real immediate and long term risks of these birth control methods; if they aren't on the pill for contraception, they are on it for regulation, for their skin, or to prevent ovarian cysts; if they start off on the pill for non-contraceptive reasons, within a short time away at college they embark on sexual activity; many of these women have had multiple partners by age 17 or 18, meaning 5 or 8 or 10; many of these sexually active women have abnormal Pap tests already, already exposed to HPV; many of these young women "hook up" with men before they even know the man's name; and many of these young women are tattooed, pierced, and dressed in outfits that leave little to the imagination. They have been taught by our society that sex outside of marriage is to be expected; that contraception is of course sensible since sex is "bound to happen"; that multiple partners is the norm; that a relationship of more than one month is "long term"; that you can judge by how a man "looks" if he is STD free; that STDs happen to someone else; that "freedom" means doing what everyone else is doing, even when it doesn't feel right or good or true; and that those who speak about chastity and modesty are old-fashioned or downright weird.

Our society is of course to blame (and aren't "we" our society?). But so are our churches to blame. Where are the priests who are willing to speak out against pre-marital sex, contraception and abortion? Where are the priests who talk about personal dignity as a reflection of God's dignity within us? Where are the priests who talk to young women about how they dress and act, and to young men about respecting women and themselves? Fortunately, my parish does have such priests, but from what I hear, few other parishes are so lucky. I fear for the future of our society; we too often, as the citizens of Rome once did, define the value of our lives by the sensual, the temporary, the exciting, the campy, the convenient, the self-serving self-love that doesn't leave room for introspection, devotion, chastity, service, self-sacrifice and yes, even for suffering. It has always, through the centuries, been a small remnant of people who struggle to remain true to God's Word. That remnant seems to be shrinking. But how awful that some of the women I see don't understand what they are doing! They are simply living their lives as they have been taught by movies, novels, TV shows and, alas, by their parents and their schools. These women don't see that there is anything wrong with their lifestyles because no one has opened their eyes--and because they are unable to respond to the small voice inside that may be telling them that something is wrong. It is, indeed, very difficult to work day after day with young women who are anxious, stressed, often medicated for depression, and too often worried about their health and their bodies but unable to see the disconnection between their sexuality and their souls.

I don't know the answer. Sometimes the problem seems overwhelming.

Saturday, December 1, 2007

Signing off

December: A wonderful month for many reasons. Tomorrow our pastor will begin offering, every Sunday, the Extraordinary Mass. Our church is abuzz with happy anticipation--we are fortunate to have a number of parishioners who will attend on a regular basis, hopefully satisfying our Bishop's desire to see a stable number of faithful who will support the Latin Mass. Right now, the Bishop has asked the pastor to offer the Latin Mass downstairs in the chapel. If enough people support the Mass, it will be moved upstairs into the church. Pray for us that we will see this beautiful Mass offered not only weekly in the church but eventually daily. Our pastor already celebrates the Vatican II Mass in Latin with readings in the vernacular, as Vatican II intended.

December also brings Advent and Christmas, the beginning of the Liturgical year--once again, another cycle, another opportunity to become "new," another opportunity to aim for holiness. Again I will mention a small family-run press that is bringing traditional Catholic cards and stationery to us online,, their cards and spirit a welcome change from the Christmas cards I find in stores. No reindeer with stocking caps, thank you, I'd prefer a scene of the Holy family or the Christ child. As my husband said the other day, "I think Christians better start putting Christ back into Christmas"--this after we watched a particularly terrible commercial urging us to BUY, BUY, BUY for the holidays.

December also brings, for me, the end of my short-lived blog. I've learned, in the few weeks I've had this blog open, that I am simply not a blogger. I am a writer, but one who works slowly and privately, even if my writing does, in the end, reveal much about myself and my life. But I am not capable, as bloggers must be, of coming to these pages on a regular basis and forming, through the blog, a coherent thread, an interesting story, an intimate connection with readers unknown. Although I will leave the blog up for some weeks, I will no longer make entries. At least that is my plan after much contemplation. I hope to keep readers up to date via my website,, which is currently being updated.

And so good-bye to anyone who might stop by; I send all my wishes for a glorious Christmas season, a year filled with God's blessings, an end to abortion and euthanasia, and peace in our world, a world that seems to have forgotten God. May He guide us, and may we serve Him.

Monday, November 12, 2007

on Veterans' Day

On Veterans' Day, remembering my father who fought in Italy during WWII, winning a Bronze Star and a Purple Heart, and for all the other veterans of all those other wars, and for the men and women who now risk their lives every day in wars around the globe. Whether we agree with the reasons behind these wars or not, we must respect those who are brave and obedient enough to serve, while we wait at home praying for their safe return. In their honor, my poem "Terrorism: Call & Response" posted on The New Verse News, a great poetry site no matter your political leanings.

Sunday, November 11, 2007


It has been quite a few days since I have "blogged" or, in fact, written anything at all other than my usual emails to friends and "business" emails at work. I've been fairly preoccupied with other things: family health issues, work issues and with the idea of vocations, my own in particular. How do we discern our vocations? How do we know what God wants of us?

I suppose that many go about their daily lives without ever wondering about these things. But certainly we all do, or should, wonder about our purpose in life. We Catholics may, in some regards, have it easier than others. We know that our purpose in life is to know, love and serve God. Yes, but. . . exactly how do we, each in our own vocations, do that?

For many years I breezed through life believing that I should believe everything that was current and feminist, everything that was "pro-woman's rights" and everything, especially revealed in my writing and other women's writing, that was personal, confessional and "emotionally true." Having come to the craft of writing in the 70s, my attitude was, I suppose, a normal result. Suddenly, women were "liberated." There was "the pill" (which I couldn't take--it made me throw up), and there were "consciousness raising groups," and there was, in church, in homes, in general, a gradual breaking-down of tradition, respect and obedience. The liberation of women politically and emotionally wasn't all bad. But it sure wasn't all good. Now, all these years later, we are reaping the "rewards" of those heady and too often mindless and Godless days.

Which brings me back to the idea of vocation. I still believe that my vocation in writing is to be a witness to the suffering of patients and to the work of caregivers. No conflict there. But what about my actual day-to-day vocation as a nurse practitioner who is also a Catholic? I am now, although I wasn't always, a pro-life nurse. I understand how both contraception and abortion work and I also understand the desire of women not to become mothers before they are ready to become mothers (although now I also have a new understanding of the word "ready"--now I know that we become mothers when God is ready for us to become mothers). As a Catholic, as a nurse practitioner, I have a moral duty to make sure that my patients have correct information about both contraception and abortion. Note that I said correct information. Not the understated information that often issues forth from drug manufacturers or pro-choice groups and politicians, and not the sometimes overwrought information that might come from pro-life groups or politicians who are earnestly trying to steer women away from danger. Somewhere in the middle lies both the scientific and moral truth. They are not incompatible.

The truth about contraception and abortion is pretty simple. Both can destroy living human life. At the moment of conception, the fertilized egg is a living human being. The egg, once fertilized, "turns on" the human genome. This fertilized egg, from its one-cell existence, contains all the genetic material that this human being will have throughout its lifetime, from birth to death. It has acquired half its DNA from the mother's egg, and half from the father's sperm. It will grow and divide and, left alone, it will become a human child. It can't become anything else. (For more excellent information about the "humanity" of the earliest form of human life, the fertilized and then rapidly developing embryo, look up the writings of James L. Sherley, MD, PhD.)

So, you're thinking, what about vocation? If I am a nurse practitioner who sees many female patients a day, and if almost every one of those patients is on the pill or the patch or using the vaginal contraceptive ring, and if these same women might choose abortion if they do become pregnant on their contraceptives, how do I live out a holy vocation? How do I, in the 20 minutes per patient alloted me, both care for their illnesses and inform them about how the pill works, about the possibility that any pregnancy conceived on birth control will probably not implant in the uterus but be aborted during the next bleeding cycle? How do I tell these women, women who I may never see again, women who are most often Catholic, women who have grown up believing all the feminist tracts, both the true and the false, that they are going against the Church and against natural law by using contraception? Women do not read the package inserts with their contraceptives. Most women do not consider the pill "medicine." Most women do not know how the pill, the patch, the vaginal ring, the IUD, the progesterone implant, works. Nobody wants them to know. Contraception is a huge business.

Making my vocation more difficult, my employer doesn't discourage the use of the pill. In fact, I work in a Catholic health center in which we do not prescribe the pill (wink, wink) but enable women to obtain the pill elsewhere. Pharmacies deliver the pill to our health center; the women then pick up their pills and go on their way. Because I object to this, I don't have to participate. But don't I have the obligation not only to inform women of the moral risks they incur with contraception (then of course they are free to decide how they will respond) but also to try and correct the very un-Catholic actions of my Catholic employer? How far do we go in our vocations; how far do I go in my vocation? Are we, am I, willing to risk 1) being criticized 2) being fired 3) being thought too "zealous"?

In the same vein, I wonder about the idea of blogging. Is this part of my vocation or simply a vanity, a way to present myself as not only a pro-woman writer but also a Catholic writer whose way of looking at the world has changed since those feminist days? Surely I could work out these questions and issues in essays--in fact, am I wasting valuable time and energy blogging when I could be putting this same energy into writing essays that might be published more widely or at least read more widely in nursing or medical journals?

How do we "do" our vocations at work? How do we know how far to go, how zealous to be, how counter-cultural (and being Catholic, really Catholic, is certainly counter-cultural) to be? How do we "do" our vocations through blogs or websites or other forms of the written word? How often do we mistake what our vocations are, doing what we like or feel comfortable doing when God is waiting for us to do His will? How do we discern God's will for us?

For myself, I'm trying to find ways, kind but firm ways, to inform contraception-using women about how those contraceptives work. I am trying in small ways to show my employer that being Catholic means not winking at contraception. I'm writing more about pro-life issues. I'm trying to do what the Church guides me to do even when doing that is extremely uncomfortable for me. Most of all, I pray for the grace that I may do God's will, whether I know I am doing it or not.

And so now I go off to Mass, the greatest prayer of all.