Patient or nurse, nurse or patient — who am I? This was a question I faced often while I attended the Adult Congenital Heart Association's national conference in Los Angeles about a month ago.
I had intentions to stretch myself between both worlds — to attend both patient and health professional sessions. After all I am both a nurse and an adult with congenital heart disease.
My name badge didn’t specify “who” I was, but next to my name badge, my role was very clear. My “zipper” isn’t that red anymore, but it is visible to those who look for it. I caught myself staring at attendee’s chests, looking, wondering… professional or Zipper Club member?
Then my identity slapped me in the face. There he was, hugging a “patient” and going on to get his coffee. I think I did recognize him, but I couldn’t be sure — it had been 27 years since I last saw him.
“Who was that?” I asked the cute blonde with her gorgeous scar winking at me.
Oh my goodness, it WAS him. I ran, fairly quickly, but didn’t even stop to think of what to say.
What do you say to the man who saved your life? Who performed a surgery other cardiothoracic surgeons didn’t feel comfortable doing? Who reached into my chest with his skilled hands and fixed my broken heart?
“Hi, my name is Christy — in 1984 you fixed my heart, and I’m now a mother and a pediatric ICU nurse. Thank you!” I said with my hands trembling. My husband Steve asked if he could shake his hand and thanked him for giving me, his love, my life. We posed for a quick picture as they were hurrying him off to present a lecture.
I joked with Steve that we would see celebrities while we visited LA, and with the rushed manner in which we spoke I did feel like I just met my own personal rock star. But unlike most celebrity sightings, my rock star turned around and asked me to email him.
“Send me that picture, it would mean a lot to me, and let’s keep in touch.”
In that instant, I was no longer the patient or the professional. I was the grown woman who was the product of one man’s life work. I relished that moment, and I was very grateful that I had the opportunity to thank him.
The entire conference, I was blown away by the collaboration of the physicians. Not just with each other, but with their patients.
Doctors, cardiologists in particular, can have an unbelievably large ego, but there is something unique about cardiologists who specialize in congenital heart disease. Honesty, partnership, openness and honest to goodness caring make these physicians the caviar of the medical community. They have devoted their life to advocating, advancing and improving care for individuals affected by congenital heart disease.
We met experts in the field — leaders who are directing the way we approach health care for aging survivors of a “pediatric” disease. But all of them felt more like a best friend who just wants the best for you, and each of their devotion to our cause was palpable. We broke bread, we drank wine, and we danced together.
The conference went by too fast and I learned a lot about myself, my emotional life journey, and met others just like me. I ultimately assigned my time at the conference to my patient role, but knew that everything I was learning would lend itself to my career aspiration of working with my people, the zipper people.
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