I’m still somewhat in a state of shock, but a good state of shock at that: I was accepted to ALL of the competitive nursing programs I applied to, including my top choice, the highly competitive combination accelerated BSN and Hillman Scholars Ph.D. program at the University of Pennsylvania. (Hello Ivy League! And that’s where I’m going!!!) Just two-and-a-half years ago, I sat in the hospital on my 30th birthday, having emerged from the 3rd and final intestinal surgery; for the better part of the year, I had casually tossed around the idea of returning to school to become a nurse; I had started reading medical sociology and philosophy books; I tried very hard to “recover” from too many years of emotional damages from chronic disease; I realized I had survived. Not unscathed, but still. I told people I was planning to become a nurse, and the idea was poo-pooed by so many friends close to me. Which sent me into a two-week stay-in-bed depression–because I was too sensitive or foolish or vulnerable at the time? The sense of defeat after battling a disease for 6 years, being told what to do by it and doctors was too much for me. Now I was surrounded by people also telling me what to do with my life. Fortunately, all this negative sentiment on the part of “friends” helped me fine-tune my beliefs about nursing and my future. I immediately started to jot down ideas for my personal statement and really considered the why behind wanting to enter the field of nursing. So, thank you, all the supporters and non-supporters alike. 😉

I read everything I could about the top nursing programs while taking 1-2 classes a “semester”; I developed more surgery complications during this time, resulting in more hospitalizations and treatments; I looked at the top 10 schools and whittled the list down to only the east coast ones, mostly due to wanting to be close to home in the event of unpredictable health crises, which were unfortunately happening all too often; I realized that I would forever be a patient to several doctors and that “healthy” was a state I would never reach. Ever. But it didn’t matter, it doesn’t matter, because every single day I passionately wanted to become a nurse and a nurse scientist, and even more determined, I marched in that direction.

I wish I could remember the exact day I discovered the Hillman Scholars Program at Penn. I do remember feeling THIS IS IT when I read about it, even with its “at most, 6” acceptance rate. Daunting numbers, yes, but hey, I would try to be 1 of those 6. It was somehow easy for someone like me, who never operated on normal timelines, to think about committing the next 5 years of my life to such an ambitious and rigorous program. Not wanting to wait another year to apply, I took a ton of insanely compact 6-8 week classes that consumed my entire life and stretched the limits of my brain. (I had never taken a college-level science course before I was 30 years old!)

Armed with my long list of “academic objectives and professional goals,” I convinced the Dean of Chemistry at my community college to let me bypass three prerequisites so that I could take the advanced chemistry course (also a semester’s worth packed into 6 weeks!) required for Penn. I ran around campus getting signatures, much to the surprise of the Registration folks who would repeatedly say, “We’ve never seen this. You don’t meet any of the requirements and she’s/he’s letting you into this class?” To which I would reply, “Yes. See the signature?” (Mind you, I have a history of subverting the system within the system: my undergrad years were full of meetings with professors who said, “you want to write about WHAT??” and me getting the green light even when my topic of interest swerved so far from the topic at hand, like when I wrote all about Montessori elementary school education in my Secondary Public Schools seminar…I got an A on that paper even though I “didn’t follow directions” hahahahaha). In my experience, academic passions and dedication go much much farther than playing by the rules and following directions.

Last summer, I was nearing the end of my prerequisites (that 6-week Chemistry class!) and of course I landed in the hospital for a good five days. On the verge of having to take an incomplete but determined to not only pass but get an A, I spent approximately 16 hours a day (after discharge) for days studying quantum mechanics, thermodynamics, and so many other abstract concepts that I had no foundation for whatsoever. (You should SEE the stacks of papers/math problems I had to do!) And I got an A. I then gave myself 4 weeks to study for the GRE, scheduling the test for a week where my anemic self would be the least anemic, i.e., where my brain would function its best on never enough oxygen/bloodflow. And I did something I hadn’t in quite a while: I wore one of my adult diapers on the day of the test because I was so terrified that disease and/or nerves would interfere with my life yet again on this all-important day. (You aren’t allowed to leave the room except for 1 scheduled 10-minute break during 4 hours of testing!) But even that scratchy diaper feeling that used to be part of my daily life for years didn’t bother me. Because I was getting closer to my goals and so what if I was wearing a diaper doing it…SO WHAT!

Both the easiest and hardest part of these two years of working towards nursing school was probably sitting down to write the personal statements/essays. I say easy only because for the first time in a decade, I had such a profound sense of direction and intense, genuine drive. In a sense, I had been writing those essays in my head since 2005 when I got sick. Although cliched and trite, I was truly writing from the heart. Which is where the “hardest” part comes in. I re-read all the disease blog posts here as well as the ones in my personal journals. I cried pretty much the entire time I read them and also when I wrote and re-wrote the essays. I’ve come to terms with my crying-while-writing, acknowledging that it’s always going to be like that, because these years have been so challenging and reading my writing is re-living it like it happened yesterday. Sometimes I can even “feel” it hurt where my surgery scars are, even though I know it’s just phantom pain. It all hurts, in some way, all the time, and I will never like or love writing about it because that hurt is exacerbated.

I’d re-read my private handwritten journal entries from the first couple of disease years, when I was so bitter, depressed, and angry about it all. Quick sentences like “I draw no strength at all from my illness, I only experience the weakness of being IN it, consumed BY it.” “I’m so scared I’m not strong enough. (I’m not!) I don’t think I can survive much more of this. My will power was diminished in the fall.” I want to go back in time and hug that person that I was then, a girl in her early twenties bombarded with too much, and tell her that it’s somehow going to “be okay.” Now, when I think about everything that has happened and everything that is to come, it all feels so logical and right. What else would I possibly want to do with my life than this, having experienced everything that I did?

Tonight as I was reading my Psychology class book on “Emotion, Stress, and Health,” I came across some pertinent points that are textbook-y but true. One of the three coping mechanisms for problems that “cannot be solved” such as “developing a chronic illness” is:

“Learning from the experience: Many people emerge from adversity with newfound or newly acquired skills, having been forced to learn something they had not known before. Others discover sources of courage and strength they did not know they had. Those who draw lessons from the inescapable tragedies of life, and find meaning in them, thrive as a result of adversity instead of simply surviving it.”

And also, “Eastern and Western cultures tend to hold different attitudes toward the ability and desirability of controlling one’s own life. In general, Western cultures celebrate primary control, in which people try to influence events by trying to exert direct control over them. If you are in a bad situation, you change it, fix it, or fight it. The Eastern approach emphasizes secondary control, in which people try to accommodate to a bad situation by changing their own aspirations or desires: If you have a problem, you live with it or act in spite of it.”

In one of the 1,000-word personal statement essays I had to write, the one that spoke specifically to the Hillman Scholars program/Ph.D., I included the following:

“While hospitalized, I often wrote in a journal until my veins were too blown to do so or until I was too upset to put into words what I was feeling, physically and emotionally. The last time I was in the hospital before I had to undergo a year of three difficult abdominal surgeries, I only wrote three sentences in total: ‘Can a spirit be chipped away at? If so, mine is. Goal is to one day be able to pick up the pieces and either put them back together or make something new with them.‘ It took me two years to realize that putting these pieces ‘back together’–my concept for repairing my emotional state so that it precisely resembled some former, intact emotional state–would be nearly impossible. It took me another year to decide that I didn’t want to put these pieces back together at all, but rather I wanted to make something new. I consider a nursing research doctorate to be my ‘something new.'”

I cannot wait to make something new when I begin school this June at the University of Pennsylvania!