What Happens When a Nurse Gets Sick?
By Angil Tarach-Ritchey
Hundreds, if not thousands, of nurses are chronically sick with diseases such as fibromyalgia, lupus, chronic fatigue, rheumatoid arthritis and diabetes. I know this to be true because I am one of those nurses.
In 2003, just a little more than a year after opening my senior homecare agency, I became very sick. During that year I had some occasional incidences of abdominal pain, which I chalked up to gall bladder. Funny how nurses always diagnose themselves and put off going to the doctor or seeking treatment. If you’re like me, you wait and see how things progress, or wait until it gets pretty bad before you make an appointment. Sometimes I think nurses are the worst patients in the world. We diagnose ourselves, adjust or discontinue our medications, and we go to our physicians with ideas of what they need to do. We’re almost lethal to ourselves. Sound familiar?
My pretty bad time came that December. The abdominal pain had been occurring more frequently throughout the year and was daily by the time I finally went to the doctor. As we all do, I assumed I’d see my doctor, maybe get a diagnostic test or two and either have surgery or get on some medication. Little did I know, I was up for the battle of my life!
The short version of the story is that I spent the next five years battling to find a diagnosis. In all the times I had self-diagnosed, this time was very different. In four months, I lost 60 lbs. and became sicker and sicker, until at one point I had up to 57 symptoms. I went through what felt like a gazillion diagnostic tests, 13 doctors of differing specialties, two trips to the Cleveland clinic, two surgeries and countless medication trials, which produced some of the most horrifying side effects I ever imagined. I could chalk some symptoms up to a possible diagnosis, but not the range and intensity of what I was dealing with. Daily vomiting, edema, hair loss, temperature regulation problems, the list goes on and on. Symptoms would come and go, some never left.
I was literally so sick there were days that I was sure I would die from whatever mystery illness I had. I spent most of my time in bed when I was no longer able to push myself to work and take care of my home and life. I was divorced a little after a year of being sick, was accused of being a drug addict by a pharmacist, and even family and friends, and rode a rollercoaster of emotions for five full years. I battled the board of my insurance company as I wondered what was stealing my life.
My saving grace was I had already owned a business, established a great reputation in the community and had brought my sister on as my assistant in the first year. She kept things going when I couldn’t force myself to work. I often thought that I would have been homeless had it not been for owning my own business and having committed people who worked for me. As a very hard working woman with a great work ethic, I spent more time than I care to think about feeling guilty. Guilty for not being at work, guilty for cancelling commitments, guilty for being sick. I was becoming more and more socially isolated, and going from hope to despair.
There is no way in the world I could have worked a job. I even tried. Divorce is not cheap. Keeping my house was also costly. New in business, I wasn’t making a lot of money, and I took on a second job as a contingent hospice nurse to offset the expenses of such a life change. Contingent is great, I thought. Tell them when I’ll work and earn a few dollars, part time. The only problem with that is they wanted a schedule in advance, and I didn’t know on any given day if I would be able to get out of bed. Every day I was sick, but if I could force myself to work my 3-8 p.m. shift, I would. My supervisor knew I was suffering from a mystery illness and was more than accommodating. The guilt of calling in at the last minute, causing other nurses to have to cover for me, got to be too much. I resigned. My supervisor was amazing and asked me to stay, but I had enough guilt without adding this. Now that I look back, I think I was crazy for thinking I could take on a second job and push myself like that, but it just confirms my tenacity in trying to carry on my life despite illness.
About the Author
Angil Tarach-Ritchey RN, GCM is a national expert in senior care. With more than 30 years experience in senior care and advocacy, Angil is very passionate about eldercare and is well respected in her field.
Since 2002, Angil has owned Visiting Angels, a private duty homecare agency in Ann Arbor, Michigan.