My first-grade teacher went around the room, asking each student to stand and share what they wanted to be when they grew up. “You can be anything you want to be,” she said with authority. “Anything.”
When my turn came, I took her at her word. “When I grow up,” I said with the confidence that only a six-year old can muster when discussing such a subject, “I want to be a mermaid.”
“You can’t be a mermaid,” she said. “Mermaids aren’t real. Pick something else.”
I thought hard for moment. “Okay. I want to be Daphne from Scooby Doo.”
She shook her head and let out a loud sigh. “Amy, you can’t be Daphne. That’s not real either. She’s just a silly cartoon.”
I stuck out my lower lip, resisting the urge to cry. My first two career choices had just been shot down. I took it very personally, but tried my best to come up with a third option that was neither silly nor unreal. It had to be something glamorous. Something impressive. Like the little boy next to me who wanted to be an astronaut, and the girl sitting in front of me who wanted to be the first female President of the U.S.
“Okay,” I finally said, “I want to be a dancer on Solid Gold.”
She asked me to sit down.
I didn’t know what I wanted to be when I grew up. Most days, I still don’t.
I envy nurses a bit, in that when someone asks them what they do, they can say three words – I’m a nurse – and that’s it. Everyone gets that. No additional explanation needed. When people ask me what I do now, I smile and say, “it’s complicated.”
There’s a long story that goes with it, and it begins in junior high school with my favorite teacher, Ethel Smith. She was in her sixties, always threatening to retire, but never making good on it. She smelled like coffee and cigarettes and rode a Harley Davidson to school. She would keep us all laughing when she blurted out curse words every now and then in class, after which she would make the sign of the cross and ask the Lord to forgive her. Sometimes in English, but more often not. She was fluent in Spanish and taught it well.
While everyone else in junior high hated foreign language class, I fell in love with the Spanish language because our wild, entertaining teacher made it so much darned fun to spend an hour with her every day. At the end of the year, I told her so. I shared with her how much she had meant to me throughout that year, and thanked her for making it not just painless, but a joy to learn a second language. As her eyes teared up, she hugged me goodbye and told me to keep learning Spanish so I could come back one day and teach it. It was only then that she could retire, she said.
And I felt something happen inside me. I was suddenly aware that just like an automobile, I had a built-in turn signal. Something about her words tapped it.
Go this way, they seemed to be telling me.
I decided then that I wanted to become a Spanish teacher. I continued taking classes throughout junior high, then high school, during which I had a brief study-abroad experience in Spain that got me even more excited about continuing to learn Spanish. I entered college as a Spanish major.
As my sophomore year was ending, a flyer made its way into my mailbox, announcing internships in a medical setting for bilingual students. Although I didn’t have any interest in healthcare at the time, it sounded like it would be a valuable way to pass the summer. I applied for an internship and was assigned to work with the health education and community outreach department at a small migrant health center in rural North Carolina.
When I started, they assigned me to shadow Catherine, a native Spanish-speaker of Tex-Mex heritage in the maternity care department. Catherine’s title was “Madre Ayudante” (helper mother), and her role was mainly to transport women to and from prenatal appointments, stand in as labor coach when needed, and interpret for her Spanish-speaking patients in all of their exchanges with the healthcare world. In spite of our different backgrounds, Catherine and I were close in age and had similar personalities. We bonded and became fast friends. And toward the end of that summer, another young woman who came into the picture would change the course of both of our lives.
I was driving home in a thunderstorm one night to the student intern house, when I came upon an accident that had just happened. A van was overturned in the road, with a person penned underneath it. I stopped to see if I needed to call 911. Not everyone had a cell phone back then, but my parents had armed me with an old bag phone for the long drives to and from home while in college. Lugging the dinosaur-model cell phone to the scene of the accident, I had my finger on the keypad and was ready to make the call if needed.
A crowd gathered at the scene informed me that an ambulance was already on the way and they didn’t need a phone. What they did need, however, was someone who could speak Spanish. The person penned under the van was a Mexican girl who didn’t speak a word of English and couldn’t understand their attempts to communicate that help was on the way.
I knelt down next to the overturned van and reached for the girl’s hand. In Spanish, I told her my name. I asked for hers – Juana. I promised her that help was on the way.
A fire truck arrived with extrication equipment and lifted the van off of her. When I saw the extent of her injuries, I was almost certain that the girl wouldn’t live through the night. The paramedics arrived a short while later and asked me to ride along to interpret as they barreled down the highway to meet a helicopter on a high school football field.
During the ride, I sat at Juana’s head, my hand on her shoulder. I fed her questions in Spanish from the medics, and returned her replies in English. She was fifteen, an undocumented immigrant from Mexico, and had only been in the U.S. for a short while. The friend who had been driving the van when it wrecked had left the scene, and she had no other family or friends nearby to call. She was alone and terrified.
She begged me not to leave her. She didn’t want to die alone, without a friend, she said. I told her to have faith that she was going to be okay, and said goodbye as they loaded her onto the helicopter for transport to a major trauma center. I promised I would find her again.
The following day, I called the hospital where she’d been transported. The pre-HIPAA days allowed me the opportunity to ask some questions and find my way to her within just a couple of phone transfers. The nurse I spoke to informed me that Juana was in the ICU, and had just awakened from having been in surgery all night long. Then the nurse asked who I was. When I explained my relationship to the girl, a pause followed. I could almost hear the nurse smiling.
“It’s you,” she said. “You’re the angel.”
I asked what she meant.
“When Juana woke up from surgery, we had a Spanish-speaking priest waiting at her bedside to speak to her. She grabbed his arm and demanded to know where her angel was.”
“Did she describe the angel?” I asked.
“Yes. She said that the angel was a white lady. With red hair and blue eyes, and she spoke Spanish with a really bad southern accent.”
I teared up. “Yeah, that’s me.”
She transferred the call to Juana’s room. Groggily, Juana told me that she was in a lot of pain, and very sleepy, but that she remembered me and wanted to see me. I promised to come visit her soon.
When I returned to campus to start my junior year, as fate would have it, the hospital where Juana was recovering was a 15-minute drive from my school. I visited her on a regular basis and we would sit for hours, drawing pictures, watching TV, and listening to Spanish language music I would bring her on tape. I would accompany her to her therapy appointments and sit beside her while her nurses were changing dressings. As soon as her caregivers heard Juana and I conversing in Spanish, they’d go running to grab a pen and notepad.
“While you’re here, can you tell us how to say a few things?” they’d ask, and we’d huddle together for Spanish class on the fly. They’d immediately practice their newly acquired Spanish on Juana, and smile proudly when she’d respond with a nod or a smile, and sometimes a laugh with gentle correction of their pronunciation. “She understands me!” One of the nurses said to me one day, as she assaulted me with an enthusiastic hug. “This is amazing! I’m speaking Spanish!”
And I felt it again – a tiny little tap on that turn signal inside me.
One day when I arrived for a visit, the mood was heavy in Juana’s room. A social worker was there to greet me and asked if we could speak privately outside of Juana’s door. She wanted to know my relationship with Juana, as I was the only visitor who was checking in with her on a regular basis. No parents or guardians had come forward to claim her, and it was nearing time for her to be discharged. The social worker wasn’t sure what they were going to do with her. Without U.S. citizenship, a placement into foster care would be difficult. Juana had quickly picked up English and could understand our conversation. She was crying when I went in to see her. I wept too, as I explained the reasons why she couldn’t come live with me when she asked. I was a college student, with no home or income of my own, and just a few years older than her. I was a friend, I tried to explain, and she needed a parent. Preferably a mother.
And then I remembered Catherine – the helper mother. I called her, shared Juana’s story with her, then asked her to visit Juana with me. As I expected, the two quickly bonded. Before I even thought to suggest it, Catherine was on the phone with a lawyer investigating options for pursuing guardianship of Juana.
A short while later, I returned for what would be my last visit with Juana in the hospital. She was getting discharged and going home to Catherine, who was in the process of adopting her. I brought a cake, as it was her 16th birthday. It seemed fitting with the new beginnings that were unfolding for her. We had a party in the hospital cafeteria, and her nurses and therapists joined in the celebration.
Juana stood up on crutches and walked across the room for a group photo with all of her caregivers. As Catherine and I took pictures, she leaned in toward me. “You know all of this would have gone down a lot differently for this girl, had it not been for you,” she whispered.
And there it was again – the turn signal, blinking like crazy, telling me that this was the way I was supposed to go. Right there in the hospital cafeteria, surrounded by people who take care of people, I knew that this was where I belonged. My heart had found a home in healthcare, so I changed my major and stayed in college an extra semester so I could squeeze all of my courses in and graduate with a degree in health education.
In addition, I got my Emergency Medical Technician certification – Basic at first, then Intermediate, and volunteered with a rescue squad in my spare time. And during that entire time, I taught Spanish to medics and nurses and therapists. And I shared stories. Then I began to write stories down, and nurses began to read them. Then I authored the Nursing Novellas series.
And over time, I went on to finish graduate school, and my employers and job titles have changed a bit, and even if you asked me now, “what do you do?” I’m not sure I could tell you with a phrase as simple as “I’m a nurse” (which I’m not).
What we do defines us profoundly, which makes it so difficult for me to try to convey with accuracy who I am. But if you asked me, and insisted on an answer, I would tell you that sometimes I’m an educator. And sometimes a rescuer. And sometimes a Spanish teacher. And sometimes a writer and a storyteller.
And sometimes, in the eyes of those whose lives I get to touch, an angel.
More than two decades ago, a 15-year old girl woke up from surgery, grabbed the closest person she could find, and told them her story. It changed my life.
And now I tell you my story because in doing so – in opening up and sharing what I do, and who I am, with the rest of the world – it will continue to change my life. It keeps moving me down the path I’m on until the turn signal tells me to change directions again, at which point I go, ready for the next adventure.
I still don’t know what I want to be when I grow up. And should Solid Gold ever make it back on TV, I might just abandon my current calling and go stand in line to audition for a spot on the dance floor!
But that’s my story.
It’s a bit complicated, but well worth sharing.
And so is yours.