Feb 01, 2011
By Michael Villeneuve, RN, M.SC.

Life and loss in the Year of the Ox

It has been said that nurses are the sickest workers in the country. I never really considered that the phrase applied to me; I thought it meant absenteeism statistics and work overload on the front lines. I didn’t think of myself as “sick.” I certainly didn’t think of myself as having a chronic illness to be “managed.” But like a lot of nurses, I did in fact develop a chronic condition that gradually impinged on my life, my choices and my career aspirations. Nurses, physicians and other care providers can be so good at providing care and advice to others; many of us are much less consistent in our ability to look after ourselves. Two years after my Year of the Ox, my life is on a new, healthy and exciting course because I chose to steer it that way. But getting to this point meant having the hardest conversations and confrontations of my life — all of them with myself.

According to Chinese astrology, 2009 was the Year of the Ox. It was the year I would turn 50 and celebrate 25 years with my partner and five years on the job at CNA.

The year before, I had decided to undergo a surgical intervention in 2009 to improve my health. I knew it would be a long, hard road. For that, I was prepared. But I was not a close follower of the Chinese or any other astrological system. I did not know about the cautions posted on paranormality.com (nor would I have paid much attention to them if I had) that “the sort of problems…encountered in the year of the Ox tend to be home front problems that seem to be never ending.”

On loss — planned and otherwise

I am feeling very different in 2011 after losing more than 600 pounds over the last couple of years. Two hundred of those pounds are gone from body by my choice and my hard work and through the tremendous gift of surgical interventions to help me.

What I did not plan for were the greater concurrent losses and the other 400 pounds that are gone from my soul. These were the deaths of Glenn, my best friend and partner in crime of 25 years, in March 2009 and, later that year, of Bobbie, my dear friend of 27 years. Both were RNs, both amazing and loving people gone far too young, both part of the foundation of my life, both tied inextricably to my place in the world, my career and the person I am today.

My health struggles began, I suppose, on the day I was born. Although I was an underweight baby and a scrawny kid, by the time I was seven or eight my weight began to balloon. We were busy happy kids from a 1960s generation in Toronto when, far from staying under our mothers’ constant gaze, we were to “go outside and play, and don’t darken the door until supper time.” We played constantly, were on sports teams, climbed trees, were fed healthy foods and did well in school. I swam, ran and had music lessons, great friends, good grades and roles in school plays. In short, I had all the trappings of a privileged suburban life inside a body that seemed intent on being larger. As a teen, I biked from Ottawa to Algonquin Park and back…and gained five pounds.

I lived through the starvation diets prescribed by doctors and dietitians. Nothing I tried seemed sustainable, and the problem worsened after each attempt. By the time I hit 40, I was really feeling my body pulling on me and slowing me down. What a difficult personal confrontation it is to feel that one has a fast, sharp mind, a rock-solid, straight-A graduate education from the best school in the country, a terrific career track — and a body that seems intent on lagging behind the rest of the team.

When I turned 45, my physician in the Ottawa Hospital Weight Management Clinic warned me, “You won’t likely have a heart attack, but you’re going to have structural failure.” I lost 108 pounds in 12 weeks on the clinic’s program and felt terrific. But as soon as I stopped what amounted to effective (and life-saving) starvation, my weight again began to climb.

I ventured back to the clinic in 2008. I knew I had to do something drastic to shock my body and soul, to steer the ship in a new direction. The subject of gastric bypass came up. I did some research, and in short order I was in Utica, N.Y., for the consultation. On Feb. 5, 2009, the deed was done. Although the 90-minute procedure and six laparoscopic punctures became more like 3½ hours and 13 punctures, I survived and was out of the hospital within 48 hours, taking only a few Tylenols to manage the pain.

The unstable metabolic consequences of the surgery would carry on for many months. But the truth is that I have never been able to unbundle those complications from the events of March 2009, just after my surgery, when Glenn could no longer bear the pain of his crippling anxiety and made the decision to end his life. I am shocked even now to write the words. Despite the support of all the people who rallied around me during those early weeks and months, I felt shaken to the core, and I took a sick leave to try to regain my mental, emotional and physical health.

I knew something was wrong when I barely cried after Bobbie’s sudden death seven months later. She succumbed to H1N1 in the same critical care unit where she’d reigned as a charge nurse for a quarter century. On a Tuesday morning a couple of weeks later, I found myself in a liquor store, sobbing at the sight of early Christmas decorations. I was in a therapist’s office the next afternoon — the best move I could have made in my emotional healing. The therapist really helped me to get grounded, to talk it through, to get through Christmas and, ultimately, to get through another surgery and then back to work and life.

That surgery, in March 2010, was a major plastics procedure to remove excess tissue. It became a scary journey into sepsis, three more surgeries, two admissions, 13 hospital nights, nine units of blood and some very worried hours lying alone in the dark in hospital. I knew I was a higher-than-average risk going into the procedure and, as before, had updated my will and done all the right things legally. But I think one is never quite prepared for that kind of detour.

On life — what matters

As 2011 begins, I am down more than 200 pounds and feel like a new person born into a new body and a new life. The loss I had planned for, as dramatic as it turned out to be, has left me feeling cleansed and healthy. The losses I didn’t plan for made me realize the truth of what nurses observe every day: life is short. I feel lighter of spirit after sliding into the bottom of a very deep curve and coming out the other side. I think either you survive these experiences and come out as a different (better, I hope) person or some part of you dies in the process.

I have become a man of paradoxes. I feel the need to be kinder and gentler while being less tolerant of agendas that don’t make sense to me. I feel the need to take the time to enjoy moments of peace but not to waste time. I feel the need to find balance, joy and meaning in life rather than seeking a position of power. I want to do great things in my professional and personal lives but have very little need to please others. I am both emboldened and humbled by my personal brush with death and the loss of people I loved. I have loving energy that I want to put into the new relationship I’ve begun.

I learned that health and healing are examples of those “it takes a village” kinds of things. I was able to heal my body, mind and soul because I had a very supportive employer and a good insurance plan. I was able to access Canada’s decent EI program for a short time. I had a salary and the personal means to purchase extra things I needed. And I felt the love of family, colleagues, neighbours and friends, who appeared seemingly from nowhere to humour and bolster me, get me vertical and keep me going. They insisted that I survive. I am forever indebted to them for keeping me afloat.

No one was more important to my own care and to the care of my loved ones than nurses. Their gentle questions in the dark of night let me know I was not alone when I was scared, exhausted or in pain. The look in the eyes above a mask in the operating room and the quietly confident female voice saying, “You will be OK, we can fix this,” reassured me as I was drifting out of consciousness. The humour of the amazing recovery room nurses let me know I was alive. The forceful advocacy of a PACU nurse assured me I was in good clinical hands — I will never forget how she blocked an anesthetist from doing something I’d asked not be done. “Wait,” she said, “he’s OK. He can do this. Hold off for now.”

My home care nurses — all but one of them registered practical nurses — always had their eyes open. Beginning with their reassuring daily “Hi, kiddo” ritual, they cared, they analyzed and they recommended treatments that healed me (not just my incision).

I wanted to share this story in the hope that it might prompt other nurses to look at their life and health and take steps to put things on course. I am still stinging from the losses I endured, but I continue to celebrate the fact that I am still here.

Michael Villeneuve, RN, M.SC., is CNA’s scholar-in-residence.
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