It’s Never Too Late to Become a Nurse

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Death and dying have always incited fear in Joanna Patchett.

“The thought of being the one responsible for people’s lives and the fear of the space between life and death terrified me,” she voiced.

In spite of this fear, Joanna, a fresh nursing school graduate, spent her July 2020 amidst ill Covid patients in Binghamton General Hospital in upstate New York, during the time when Corona cases were inundating hospitals.

Being a witness to the sufferings was a heart-rending experience that changed Joanna’s life profoundly. “The sight of people dying rapidly, on a floor filled with ventilated patients, frequently intubating people, or being their main connection while the rest of the world couldn’t, was utterly unexpected,” confessed the 39-year-old resident of Binghamton.

Despite her initial dreams of acting, Joanna ended up nursing. She started a one-year accelerated nursing program at the age of 35 in 2019, after her acting career didn’t yield much. Her classmates, most of whom were much younger college pass-outs, playfully called her Mom. The vulnerability witnessed during the pandemic profoundly moved her.

“Seeing the worth of life and how fiercely the body battles to survive was an eye-opener,” Joanna shared.

After obtaining a bachelor’s degree in English and drama from Ithaca College, Joanna spent some “confusing and depressing” years doing assorted jobs like teaching English and yoga, or working in a dental office due to her uncertainty about what she wanted to do. “I had a feeling that there was something I could contribute, but was unsure of what it could be,” Joanna stated.

When asked about feeling jealous of people confronting their fears, Joanna confessed, “I was, as I had never done it. I realized that I needed to take a risk and challenge myself to grow and understand myself.”

Joanna’s mother persuaded her to try nursing, sensing her potential in the field, although Joanna was not convinced, thinking she was not spiritually and emotionally fit for the role.

However, in the following years, Joanna found herself in nursing, despite the demanding schedule, daily emergencies, and the emotional strain. Coming back to an empty apartment was especially hard for Joanna, who lived alone and could not meet her family living nearby due to the risk of Corona. After work, she often found herself in tears. Her mental health was affected by the stress of managing the I.C.U., leading her to adopt a cat, Tanky, looking for a source of love. “Tanky has been a great help during these times, providing emotional healing in the form of his 15-pound furry love,” she expressed.

“Seeing patients, I had grown close to passing away, causing me to question everything. Nevertheless, I felt it was my duty. I couldn’t let them die alone in such a tragic battle,” Joanna revealed.

The subsequent interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Did you ever regret your decision to become a nurse, considering your first job unexpectedly placed you in the I.C.U. and made you responsible for the care of Covid patients?

Absolutely not. Despite the roaring fear, I feel nursing was a calling for me. Being at the deathbed of someone or accompanying them during their final journey was something I could manage. The tremendous stress of the situation could not deter me from my duties.

How did you manage to overcome your fears?

Despite having no choice and not being able to flee from my work, I found the strength to accept the challenges and stay firm. Leaving the sick was not an option, nor was it something I ever wished for. Someone had to stand firm. I knew it was my responsibility.

You found yourself to be one of the oldest attendees after you were accepted into the nursing program. How did you feel about that?

I felt somewhat out of place. Most of the attendees were energetic 20-25-year-olds, fresh out of college. I did not relate to their excitement. However, Gen Z proved to be extremely accepting, fostering an environment free of judgment. When we began our clinical groups, our dependency on each other grew, and we became a strong, supportive unit that provided additional strength.

How did you feel about being called “Mom” by the younger students?

It was quite endearing. Besides ensuring everyone was doing fine, I also carried food for those who might have skipped a meal. I became a pillar of support for anyone who was having a hard time, thanks to my experience and age. Their acknowledgment made me feel important and distinctive. There was much to learn from them as well.

What has being a nurse taught you?

Never before did I have a job that held so much meaning or purpose. Encountering death made me realize the importance of not surrendering. Nursing taught me that life can be cruel and painful; however, one must continue the battle to persevere – which is an integral chapter of life. I understood my importance, especially during the dying moments of my patients who found solace in my companionship.

After fighting for the lives of Covid patients for 18 months, you shifted to palliative care. Why the switch?

I was burnt out—I needed a change in my work environment. The I.C.U. floor gave me a crash course on death, and I realized I would rather facilitate a peaceful death, instead of watching people die helplessly. Eventually, when Covid cases decreased, I started assisting the elderly and terminally ill patients in deciding how they wished to bid their farewell. Currently, I am Lourdes Hospice’s hospice nurse case manager in Vestal, N.Y.,, where I deal with 20 to 30 families per week, discussing in-depth the dignity of death.

What have you discovered about yourself while caring for others?

I grasp that my voice carries wisdom. I have a unique talent for lending an ear and acknowledging people while being present during their crises.

What’s the most beneficial advice you can give?

When it comes to altering life, sometimes a decision to change is all that’s needed. Once you make the decision, almost anything can be achieved. Every experience you go through contributes to your current self. Interestingly, my training in yoga, acting, and teaching provided me the ability to stay anchored and present, valuing each moment. None of your journeys, even when you’re uncertain about your direction, are ever in vain. You’re never ‘late’— you have just not arrived yet.

Becoming a Nurse Can Happen at Any Age