The Moment I Knew I was a Nurse

I remember the exact moment I decided to become a nurse.

Hard not to remember- I was standing in the middle of a giant pile of wreckage in Pass Christian, Mississippi, where we had just found partially decomposed bodies.

There was no gradual realization. No buildup. It was an immediate and profound call to service- and it led me to where I am today.

Let’s rewind the clock a bit.

I spent most of 2004 and 2005 in a funk. And by “in a funk”, I mean “in a self-destructive race to see how much I could ruin my life.”  I felt incredibly sorry for myself, having recently destroyed my military career for “true love”- because who knows love better than a whiny, angsty teenager- only for things to, predictably, not work out. I drank to excess, I shut myself off from the world, destroyed friendships, etc.

It culminated in a night I drank so much that, based on my weight and age at the time, I calculated recently my BAC was probably about 0.53. Just in comparison, but the LD50 for alcohol— the level at which 50% of people will die— is 0.40 (0.4%).

When I recovered from that, I took stock in where my life was heading, and realized I had to get a grip, stop wallowing in self pity, and do something productive with my life- or else this is where I would stay.

In a search for a career, I finally decided on becoming a paramedic. Sounded kinda cool. So I signed up for classes at my local community college and was all set to begin my new career path…

… when Hurricane Katrina came ashore in Mississippi and Louisiana.

The images and stories we heard in the first couple days on the news were stark. Eye-opening. I vaguely remembered Hurricane Andrew in Florida, but that was before 24-hour news channels could convey the scope of the tragedy in real-time (and, in any case, in the early 90’s we barely got three channels on a clear day). But it was clear to me I couldn’t sit idly by and do nothing while so many people had suffered.

I did the only thing I could think of doing. I marched into the local American Red Cross office and demanded they send me down there. I would do whatever they needed- drive trucks, move boxes, hand out supplies, pick up wreckage, I didn’t care. Just, please– send me.

Which is how I found myself in Biloxi, Mississippi just a few short days later.

I thought I was prepared for what I’d encounter- I’d watched the news, after all. But the devastation that had been wrought was wholly incomprehensible. Beyond words; and certainly nothing like you saw on TV.

No electricity. No running water. Still finding survivors- but usually at this point, just bodies. I was attached to work with a roving group of nurses, as supplementary muscle to do whatever needed doing. To that point, the only thing I knew about nurses was any stereotype you can imagine- insert bedpan joke here- but I was just happy to be able to help, in any way.

And I certainly got my wish- no sooner than we had arrived, we were put to work, going house to house looking for people who needed help- so many people needed help. People who had returned to find their homes destroyed, people who hadn’t heeded the evacuation orders, people who were in dire need of medical, physiological, and psychological assistance.

I had the supreme luck to be attached to a group of nurses who did… well… everything. They filled any and every role that needed to be filled, from advanced life support to cooking meals; everything from helping move downed trees to grief counseling. They threw themselves into whatever role needed filling, without complaint or hesitation.

We were at a Red Cross aid station; there was a long line for aid checks, so we started to do health checks while folks were waiting. A young couple was waiting in line with their toddler; they had returned from a shelter to discover the mismatched pile of lumber that had, until just a few days previously, been their home. The young (and very pregnant) wife was holding her toddler on one hip and crying into the shoulder of one of our more experienced nurses, a recently-retired veteran, when she abruptly got a very strange look on her face.

Her water broke, standing right there. And for those of you who don’t know, first babies are almost always slow- but second babies are faaaaaast.

So we delivered that baby, right there. Even if there had been time to summon it, there wasn’t any help available; there were no ambulances, no doctors, no OB trays or even sterile supplies to speak of. It was just us, asphalt, debris, and oppressive humidity. And that nurse went from shoulder-to-cry-on to delivering a baby in the 95 degree Mississippi heat so seamlessly and effortlessly that I’m still left agape when remembering it a decade and a half later.

But as impressive as that was, it wasn’t what broke me. We were out on our roving patrol, helping a group of rescue workers who’d just discovered a family that had tried to ride the storm out. For folks who had seen a lot of bad stuff in the recent days, this was especially tough.

It was then we got a call. Hurricane Rita was looming threateningly off-shore, and the folks up the chain at the Red Cross said we needed to prepare to evacuate immediately.

And- as one, without the slightest hesitation- the group of nurses I worked with said: no.

We were staying.

The people here had already been through so much, were just starting to get on their feet, and we weren’t going to abandon them, no matter what.

That.

That was moment was when I became a nurse.

So to all my brothers and sisters out there who labor day in and day out. Who brush off getting insulted and assaulted. Who are simultaneously undercaffeinated but energetic; cynical but hopelessly optimistic; maniacally stoic but endlessly empathetic. Who stand against the weight of the world, who might get knocked down but always- always– get back up again. Who stand on the front lines, stitching the proverbial safety net together by force of will alone, and, in doing so, keeping our communities safe, sound, and healthy.

Thank you for everything you do.

Kellen Squire is an emergency department nurse from Barboursville, VA, and candidate for Lieutenant Governor of the Commonwealth of Virginia. Donate, volunteer, or get the word out about our people-powered campaign, today!

Kellen Squire