Friday, November 9, 2018

Giving back when having previously taken away

Before I start, I'd like to acknowledge the sites noted below each photo, as Angola does not permit photography on the prison site. Thank you for your assistance in educating the public.

It's not every day a person voluntarily steps foot inside a maximum security prison. It isn't every day that a nurse who works "on the outside" has the opportunity to simply chat whilst holding the hand of an elderly, toothless inmate whose only wish is to die outside of thick concrete walls with his younger brother at his side. It definitely isn't every day that the same nurse cries over a group of men who have undoubtedly committed crimes that destroyed the lives of many, many people. It’s a heartbreaking conundrum and one filled with both self-questioning and the desire to know more.

Over five-thousand men currently call Angola home - specifically, Louisiana State Penitentiary. Over one thousand staff work on the 18,000 acre campus, and several hundred more staff reside in small houses scattered throughout the rich landscape - there is a two year waiting list for prison residences. The prison finds itself surrounded on three sides by the grand Mississippi River, further swollen by thunderous rains which sweep through the area almost daily. On the fourth side is a tall levy, maintained by staff and prisoners called "trustees" who have proven themselves trustworthy enough to work amongst staff, other prisoners, and the many visitors who tour Angola each year while earning a bit more pay per hour. There are no actual fences on the outside perimeter - nature is given that task. The Warden's home sits high on top of a hill, overlooking the land.

Several guard towers on the inside of the property stand vacant due to downsizing and budget cuts. To keep offenders within their Camps, a double layer of barbed wire fencing surrounds each camp. Cameras monitor the fences at all times. At night, dogs trained by an elite group of 12 trustees are set loose to roam the perimeters; these dogs aren't just a standard breed, however. German Shepherds are bred with wolves in order to instill a primal fear into offenders who may consider a chance at escape. Trained by men who are “lifers” for first degree murder, the preconceived potential fury of such a partnership is quite palpable.

The prison, called "The Farm," indeed does consist of much farmland, tended by trustees. Wheat, corn, soy, sugarcane, and all kinds of vegetables are grown on Angola. Cows, horses, and a lone camel reside on the green land. The prison sustains itself and sends produce and other goods (such as homemade jellies) out into the community. A dairy was shut down about twelve years ago. The land itself is saturated with recent rains as well as runoff from the nearby Mississippi River.

Many years ago, Warden Burl Cain (resigned in 2016) developed a hospice program for his inmates - determined to make every death a “good” one. As he states in the documentary "Serving Life," "I'll dig your grave, and someone else will dig mine." It is to be said, however, that Warden Cain was often seen by inmates as the leader of a great plantation, providing medical care and hospice services as somewhat of a “cold comfort,” as stated by A, one of the hospice volunteers in an article written many years ago. Although hospice services do assist in a better dying experience, men are still dying within prison walls.

Two nurses per shift work within the hospice ward, and 36 volunteer inmates are trained to assist the nurses in providing intimate, daily care for the seriously ill and dying patients. Volunteers are interviewed and put through an intensive 40-hour training program in which they learn to care for others, and for themselves. Many volunteers have become skilled sewers, making quilts for dying patients so they are covered beautifully while being taken to their final resting place on the grounds.

While in the Hospice Chapel, also built by offenders, I was struck by the beauty of the simplicity of the program. The volunteers are not able to use their volunteer hours for "brownie points" for parole - often, the parole board is completely unaware of the inmates' involvement. This is done intentionally so volunteering is done for reasons other than impressing the board in hopes of an earlier parole. While in the Chapel, we were joined by M, S, and A, who have all been volunteering since the inception of the program - well over 25 years. The nurse manager was also present to answer the more medical-based questions, however the session mostly focused around what the volunteers were describing. They all wore special hospice t-shirts, which identifies them across the prison. The Chapel itself has a labyrinth carved into the floor for the prisoners to use for meditation and reflection, and is where funeral services are held for inmates. The acoustics within the chapel amplified the harmonic voice of M, as he sang a hymn to us, much like the hymns sung at funerals. 

When I asked M later about the energy shift within the prison after the program was started, and if there even was one, he told me that the program is well-respected, and that the volunteers often find themselves given a bit of extra leeway by fellow offenders - that's not to say, however, that they're not held to the same strict behavior standards. Any tiny amount of misbehavior, and the privilege of volunteering is revoked forever. That is a fear many of the volunteers hold close to their heart. Many of these men verbalized their sorrow and regret for past actions - they know that they can never “set things right,” however they do desperately want to make retributions as much as they possibly can.

As 55 of us ventured into the hospital ward where the hospice and palliative patients lay, there was a definite sense of trepidation. Later, on the return to New Orleans, it was noted that many of us felt we were infiltrating the privacy and peace of these men. Several patients were seen pulling the covers over the head, while several others stared at us either with a variety of expressions - anxiety, hope, confusion. It was a surprise to us all to be set free within the large room to visit with bedbound prisoners, and immediately, the room swarmed with voices raised in open conversation. I noticed immediately that the group ensured that every man had someone at their bedside.

The hospice rooms themselves are on the sides of the large room - there are six rooms with doors - these rooms offer windows, televisions, and a large chair or couch for family visits. Families are encouraged to visit their loved ones, much as in the outside world. The large, central room, is a disarray of enormous oxygen tanks, electric and hand-cranked hospital beds, medical equipment, and a feeling of despair which the nurses and volunteers do their best to assuage.

As I was speaking with the nurses, inquiring as to whether or not they had any integrative therapy programs (they do have pet therapy,) I noticed that one of the hospice rooms had opened, and a small man was sitting in a wheelchair in the doorway, quietly watching the increasingly loud conversation in the larger room. There was an energy about him that I recognized immediately - a sense of wanting so much to belong, but a shyness about being turned away. I was drawn to him, and found myself sitting on the floor next to his wheelchair. His toothless smile upon my introduction and a handshake of his cool, extremely calloused hand, brought about a sense of comfort to us both. He has been a patient of hospice for a few months, and a prisoner of Angola for 25 years. I did not ask him what for, as I didn't feel it relevant to any form of conversation that would bring him a bit of joy on that day. I told him I was a nurse, a hospice nurse specifically, as he asked why so many people were visiting.

During our conversation. Mr. E opened up to me about his desire to see his younger brother again, and how he wanted so much to die outside of the thick, cold, concrete walls. He understood it probably wouldn't happen, a compassionate release, but that hope would not diminish. He was happy to not be in pain, although expressed frustration that he needed to be on oxygen 24/7. I shared that I understood the frustration, as I had spent 7 months of my life attached to a tank. He asked me if I knew of anything that would help his COPD symptoms, and I suggested a few things which the wonderful nurses had already been doing. Sadly, our visit didn't last for too much longer, as I noticed our large group streaming out of the medical ward. When I went to say goodbye, I noticed that we had been holding each other's hands for quite some time. I didn't even recognize my action as being anything special - but these men have such infrequent touch that I can only hope it offered some comfort. It is a struggle to not tear up when I think of his smile. "Well, what if he did such and such?" I don't know that he did such and such, all I see is a human being in need of human interaction.

Many of the volunteers committed atrocious crimes years and years ago - many were convicted of second degree murder or first degree assault and robbery. Not once did I feel like I was in danger, objectified, or at risk of being harmed. It wasn't that the security was amazing - which it was - there was a dual respect shown which was really quite incredible to witness. Staff gave the volunteers and trustees respect, and the volunteers and trustees afforded the utmost respect to visitors and staff.

After leaving the hospice, it was appropriate that we visited Our Lady of Guadalupe Chapel at Angola by the hospital. I was not surprised to learn that this was also built by inmates, but I was stunned to learn that it had been built, by 50 inmates, in only 38 days. The architect was an inmate, and was dying of cancer while the building was being built and painted. He was hoisted bodily up to the ceiling of the church in order to paint the portraits of Jesus and other apostles, due to his weakness. He died only a month after completion of the church. It's incredibly stunning work, full of color.

This was truly a once-in-a-lifetime experience for me. I encourage all of you to reach out into your communities and see where differences can be made. I'm not suggesting that you visit sick prisoners, however perhaps check into how you can volunteer in hospices within your communities. It does make a difference to patients and families.

And check out "Serving Life," a wonderful documentary on the Angola Hospice Volunteer Program. There is also a documentary called "The Farm" which is about serving time in Angola. 

Monday, June 26, 2017

An Open Letter to My Future Kiddo

An Open Letter to My Future Kiddo

Hi, peanut. 

Right now I don’t know who you are. I don’t even know if you’ve been born yet. I don’t know where you are, if you’re a boy or girl, if you have brown eyes like me, or eyes the color of the sky right when the sun breaks through after a storm. I do know, though, that I feel you in my heart. I already love you, and I have no idea what your name is, or if you get the hiccups a lot, or if you think that blanket forts are the best thing ever. 

I hope you like blanket forts, and if you’ve never built one, I hope you let me teach you. 

I know you’ve probably been through a lot, even if you don’t remember all of it. Things like that will stick with you, and I’m here for you to listen, or hug, or just sit and be quiet over a bowl of ice cream. Do you like ice cream?  

It’s okay if you don’t want me to hug you at first, or even if it takes a long time to trust me. While I’m adopted, I was a newborn and I don’t remember things. It’s okay for you to remember, and it’s okay for you to cry and hurt if you need to. This house will be a safe space for you. Can I tell you a secret? I’m scared, too. I know I’m the “grown up,” but my heart beats a zillion times a minute thinking that you are coming here to live with me, that we will be a family.  

Your grandparents are pretty cool people. You can call them by their first names, or you can call them Grandma and Grandpa, or Nana and Papa, or whatever you like. They’re really excited to meet you. They adopted me when I was a baby, and then four years later, adopted a cute little girl who became my sister. I’m sad that my sister isn’t alive anymore, but I have lots of pictures and stories. She would have loved you, too. She always asked me when she would get to be an aunt. Now she is one, and I know she’s happy wherever she is. My mom and dad live about 30 minutes away from us. Does that seem far? It really isn’t… I just put on  some good music in the car and am home in no time! What kind of music do you like? 

When you come home, because this is your forever home, I will have your room all ready for you. I don’t know exactly what you will like, but it will be fun for you to choose things to decorate your room with. You will have lots of choices, and I look forward to seeing what your personality looks like! Do you like teddy bears? Ladybugs? Butterflies? I have lots of butterflies in this house because my sister liked them, and I like to see them and think about her. I have two cats, too. They’re pretty old, but think they’re kittens. I call them Bandit and Bubba. Bubba takes a little bit to get to know people, but Bandit will come and meet you right away. They’re both very good cats and like to sleep a lot.  

When you come home, I will have lots of time off of work so we can get to know each other. I’m a nurse at a hospital, and I teach other nurses new things. I work with a lot of really cool people.  Do you know what nurses do? They take care of sick people and work with doctors to make them comfortable and feel better. I don’t know if you’ve been in a hospital, but I will bring you to work one day if you want to, so you can see that it’s not such a scary place. There is a lot of love that happens there, too.  

I hope one day soon to get a phone call asking me to meet you. I’ve been working hard on my paperwork and classes so I can have people come over and make sure my home is safe and ready for you. I can’t wait to find out about you, and have your home and room ready for you to come be in a safe space. I want you to know that I’m thankful for your birth family, because they brought you into this world. When you are grown up, I will support you 100% if you want to find them. It’s weird knowing that you have two families, isn’t it?  

I love you, Kiddo. I hope you’re well wherever you are, even if you haven’t been introduced to this Earth just yet. There’s a billion more pages I could write, and maybe I’ll keep adding on to this. You’ll have a novel by the time you arrive!

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Monday, May 29, 2017

Sometimes you feel physically tiny yet spiritually infinite - The Sedona Tale

I don't know if any of you do this, too, but I like to write about things that have changed me just as the magic starts to wear off, just as the memories start to fade... that way I'm able to write about it and rekindle those feelings, those emotions, that sense of expansiveness and holistic healing.

Earlier this month, only two weeks ago, I was in Sedona. I can't believe it was only two weeks ago. It feels like it was years and yet just yesterday. I think I left a part of my soul there, although my heartsong was reinforced and has left me with a sense of peace and wisdom. I put a lot of trust in this trip, as I wished it to be a journey of healing and release.

Okay, I know it sounds romantic, but being in that environment, amongst the Red Rocks which grew to be friends and mentors, I experienced another shift in my Self. I'm not sure who has been to Sedona, but I highly recommend it. Some go for the hiking, some go for the tourist attractions, some go for the shopping... I went there because I have felt drawn to that area for years. This was my first experience, and I wasn't prepared for what I learned.

My first day, I arrived early in Sedona. I wasn't to check into my AirBnB until about 4, however I had made a couple of appointments. My first appointment was with a BodyTalk practitioner named Caleb. I'd heard of BodyTalk, however had never experienced it for myself. Imagine psychotherapy mixed in with Healing Touch or other energy-movement modalities. I went in to my appointment not expecting anything, but hoping for emotional enlightenment. I had some preconceptions about what I was going to talk about, such as stressors over the past several years, however after a couple of hours, I had tears pouring out of my eyes as we pressed into issues that I never had considered. I left feeling cleansed, emotionally, and looked forward to booking another session.

Afterwards, I had scheduled a Spa day at Sedona New Day Spa, including a Turquoise Sage Mountain Arnica treatment. I was able to relax in their hot tub for awhile, and then rested in the sun until the therapist came to usher me in. Her name escapes me at the moment; it begins with an M... and she was highly intuitive as to what my physical body needed. After 90 minutes of pure bliss, I floated back to my car, feeling completely relaxed. As I had time to spare, I played in the Crystal Magic shop down the road and picked up some groceries at the Whole Foods before beginning the short drive to the AirBnB. My goal was to eat lightly and vegan, as I wished to purify my physical body during this journey.

On my drive to the AirBnB... I rounded the corner and was treated to this display for the first time.
I said, "Are you KIDDING me?"
 My AirBnB was a true retreat, very simple, with a bedroom, living room, kitchen, and bathroom. The homeowner had a pond in her backyard which was filled with trees and bamboo. It was just beautiful, and I slept very well that night after meeting the homeowner and taking a short walk around the area.

The second morning I explored Sedona, stopping first at the Amitabha Stupa. I circumambulated the Stupa, praying and chanting to myself, asking for peace and guidance for not only myself, but my fellow human beings. Following that, I sat at the feet of this gentle giant on the hill, and felt my remaining emotional stressors burgeoning to the surface. I was glad it was early, as my tears fell freely, and there weren't many people to witness this release.

 Afterwards, I spent a few hours hiking Thunder Mountain Trail... the views and rock formations were breathtaking. Later that day, I went up to Airport Mesa and hiked there, too. I think I had almost 17,000 steps on the ol' Fitbit that day!


 I spent the remainder of my days in Sedona hiking all over the place. Airport Mesa, Cathedral Rock... (Oak Creek was SO purifying and beautiful...)

And Bell Rock.......

I spent more time back at the Stupa, and visited the Chapel of the Holy Cross where I spent more time in prayer... I did most of my praying on the trails, however.

I cried a lot of tears. They were tears of joy, such as those I shed each time a beautiful vista was opened up to me around a corner. There were tears of release, of sadness and anger and frustration. I shed those and washed them away in the cool waters of Oak Creek. For those of you who know me, I bottle up my emotions and rarely cry. I am happy that I was able to release those tears in such a pure place.

My last day, I happened upon a place called The Chai Spot. I wandered in to a lovely-smelling storefront with very few people in the room. All I know of Chai is what I occasionally buy from Starbucks, so I admitted as much to the sweet girl behind the counter. Savannah, her name was, educated me with great enthusiasm on chai and its origins. She suggested a drink for me, dairy free, and chatted happily with me while I enjoyed this beverage. She then handed me a magazine with an article on the owners of the Chai Spot, which told their story of falling in love even through cultural boundaries and family tensions.

I felt that I received a lot of messages in this journey. I know now that I don't have to be afraid of the future, that whatever happens is for a reason. I can be upset about something or I can search for the truth within the message. It's up to me to decipher what the internal words mean, not just to jump on the emotional bandwagon of what I "should be" feeling about it.

I look forward, very much, to my next trip to Sedona. I truly adored the region and the people, and of course, my Red Rocks.
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Sunday, April 30, 2017

Another beginning

The cool thing about being human is the constant opportunity to renew yourself. I was telling my "story" the other day to an interested party, and was again struck by all the shit that's happened over the past three years. Not all of it has been literal shit, but a lot of it was, and you know what? I'm using that as fertilizer for the good stuff that's coming my way.

Among the break-ups and my sister dying, and the 7 months of cardiac drama I went through, and fighting to get through school, and more break-ups, and association drama, and gaining 40 pounds, I figured that life was pretty much over, right? Nope!

I finished my MSN. I bought a home that's everything I ever wanted. I'm going back to school next month for my Clinical Nurse Specialist certification. I'm heavily involved in planning my first vacation in four years. I've discovered yoga and Pilates and meditation and renewal. I've started down the path to adopt a child, and will have the second phase completed in late June. I've made lifelong friends who have become my extended family. I've become closer with my parents. I've lost 10 of those 40 pounds.

I chose to eliminate coffee, alcohol, and most processed foods. I journal every night and every morning in the "5-minute journal" that I received at the SHARP Women's Health Conference in April. I've made self-care a priority for the first time in years. I have released my painful desire to be in a relationship, as I realize I can't be a functional part of a duo if I am not in love with myself.

That's my current journey. Finding my love for myself. I believe in romance, and that head-over-heels love that you read about and see on the faces of your Facebook friends when they post photos of their weddings and engagements. I am glad to know it exists. I may never find it for myself, but I'm at peace knowing that it does exist in this world. I am filled with the love I have for my family and friends, and thrive on the hugs and laughter and silliness that we share.

On another note, we're surrounded with so much STUFF, right? If love is so fulfilling, why do we have so much STUFF. We're covered in THINGS... even now, I'm surrounded by sofa pillows. Why do I need 7 sofa pillows? Earlier this month, I was in Sacramento at RN Day at the Capitol. I was introduced to several of the people there who were homeless. I was struck by their stories, the humility they show as they face such adversity that most of us would probably be a total  mess. One little lady was surrounded by umbrellas as she slept in the shade. She used one as a "gate," between her and a nearby planter, protecting her valuables from curious fingers. When I returned to her, bringing milk and pudding per her request, she presented me with two paper boats. I was immediately humbled that this woman, who has so little, took the time to make me these boats and then educate me on how they should be used.

I credit her for transforming my perspective on just about everything. We have a lot, if we just know how to look at it.

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Friday, February 17, 2017

Continued growth

Hello, loves. It's been awhile, hasn't it? I last posted in July 2016 after having my procedure to "fix" my heart issues. I'm happy to say that I feel well physically... I guess having oxygen will do that to a person. :)

I've started a new job as a nurse educator in a local hospital, and I love it. Continuing my work in palliative care and oncology has been a blessing, and I'm able to use my passion for this work every single day. While my job description is about three pages long, the focus is on patient advocacy, nurse advocacy, and working together as a team. I have been blessed to be included in projects utilizing evidence-based practice, facilitating Unit Practice Council meetings and projects, and getting our hospital ready for Magnet re-designation.

I do admit to missing my work with patients every day. I go into rooms to fix beeping IV machines and assist patients who are fall risks, yet I rarely have been able to sit and have conversations with these people who are undergoing rough periods in their lives. We're a very busy hospital, and I often observe my nurses running around, wondering if that's how I looked when I worked on the floor. We're expecting to have more downtime coming up, and I look forward to having the time to assist my colleagues with their patient care.

In other news, I have applied to return to school (!!!) for my Post-MSN certificate as a Clinical Nurse Specialist (CNS). I would focus on Adult/Gerontology and hope to have a specific focus in Palliative Care and ensuring comfort to patients on our Palliative/Oncology unit. While my MSN in Nursing Education provided me with excellent knowledge base, the addition of Advanced Pathophysiology, Assessment, and Pharmacology would renew my brain cells and allow for the simple power of additional knowledge to assist my nurses and patient population.

Personal plans include the renewal of my dedication to adopt a child in need of a forever home. As you know, I canceled my classes when my sister passed away in 2014, however I feel that the time has come again to open my heart to the possibility of a young person in my life. I look forward to this journey as well as any other that comes my way.

I hope you all are well. Live life freely and with love and light.

Back to work!

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