Saturday, November 3, 2012

Professor J

I'm drawn to tragedies.  Tragedies like 9/11, huge weather events, earthquakes, wars, random mass shootings, and transportation accidents.  When I receive a CNN alert on my phone and know that something really awful has happened, I turn on the tv and watch in horror as the story unfolds.  I don't know why I do that, but I do.  I consider myself a compassionate person and I hate seeing others in distress, so while I'm watching the media coverage I generally wring my hands and cry and repeat a Buddhist chant.  A sane person would read the CNN alert (or not sign up for them to begin with), take a moment to send positive thoughts for those in harm's way, and move on with her day.  Not me.

Usually when one of these horrific things happen somebody mentions the fact that there are counselors/resources available to help the survivors cope in the aftermath.  I had never really thought much about that until today.

My entire nursing class received an email yesterday stating that there was a mandatory meeting scheduled for 1 pm today.  That was all it said: mandatory meeting.  Shortly after we received the email there was much discussion on our class Facebook page.  Nursing school (ours, anyway) is a pretty terrifying experience; it seems as though every instructor is firmly committed to making your life a living hell.  Therefore, our immediate reaction to the email was a unanimous expression of anxiety.  What had we done?  Had we all failed?  Was the university closing?  If the university was closing were we going to have to start over somewhere else?  The prospect of that was simply unthinkable.  Furthermore, how dare they mandate that we show up at the college on what was, for most of us, a day off?

We gathered in the designated spot at the designated time this afternoon.  We were visibly nervous.  At the front of the room stood four of our professors.  They looked very serious, and a little fragile.  There were 45 students in that room, and you could have heard a pin drop.

In a carefully measured tone, one courageous professor gently let us know that another professor, one who had not been well earlier this semester and had been absent for several weeks, had died last week.

We sat, shocked and processing and still silent.  One by one the professors dissolved into tears.  There was a heaviness to the air in that room that I've never felt before.  The heaviness was thick and cold and locked us in our seats.  It was much bigger and more powerful than we were and it held 45 bright, driven, competitive, assertive, strong students in its grasp for maybe ten of the longest seconds in each of our lives.  Then it was gone, and the air became regular old air again.

That's why the survivors of tragedies need to know that they have access to counseling.  Once you have felt that heaviness, I don't think you're ever going to forget it, and you might need to talk about it, because it is deep, profound and infinite.

The woman who died was perhaps in her fifties.  She was tougher than nails on the outside, and soft and caring and human on the inside.  She was a bit controversial, very outspoken, and an incredibly knowledgeable and competent nurse.  She cared deeply for her patients and for her students (although she probably wouldn't have admitted to the latter).  She was one of those people you either really, really liked, or really, really didn't.  She had obvious strengths, and equally obvious weaknesses.

Rest in peace, Helena.  The Facebook page is unusually quiet tonight; you are already missed.

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