“I don’t see transitions as being gentle, ongoing, slightly rocky bush trails. I see them as being difficult. You are going to get bruised and battered. But when you get to the top, you are going to be proud of that. And it will sting for a bit, but what a reminder of what you’ve achieved.”
Katie reflects on her love of mountain hiking as an analogy of her life. Having moved to the nation’s capital from Sydney, she is settling into a new life for herself and her family.
“In the past year, one of my grandparent’s was diagnosed with cancer, we bought a house, we sold a house, we moved interstate, I quit a job which society was telling me should have been a life goal and sprinkled over the top of that you had Covid. So, you could say there were a few changes.”
So, how does she frame these changes, in light of what has happened?
“I always wanted to be a nurse. I remember coming home from school as a teenager, telling my mother that I wanted to be a paramedic and my mum said no. But I wanted to work in critical care so, I became an emergency nurse instead. I loved it. I honestly thought that I would spend my days being an emergency nurse.”
Obstacle from the past
But a health complication made life difficult for Katie. As a girl she had been diagnosed with spinal tumours and by the time she was 18 she had undergone seven surgeries to rebuild her spine. It hadn’t affected her early years of nursing until she developed arthritis in parts of her back where three vertebrae had been fused.
Even though she had managed to live with pain and some level of physical limitation, her body experienced a new level of affliction. Combined with a measure of burnout from her work, she decided it was time to start a new season vocationally.
“This was huge for me. I honestly believed that this was where I was going with my life. It was like someone opened up a Grand Canyon and I couldn’t see clearly anymore, either where I was, nor where I was going.”
She reflects now, some years later, that these circumstances led to her current situation, but at the time she has to deal with considerable grief in leaving nursing.
New opportunity while dealing with loss
Through a series of circumstances, she landed a role as a nursing educator. “I’d like to say that I have a clear memory of how this happened, but I don’t. I’m pretty sure I was speaking with someone, which led to a chain reaction of my landing that role.”
What is clear for Katie though, are the emotions she experienced during those days of loss. “I’ll be honest and say that I was lost. Nursing is something that I always loved. It’s been a part of who I am and what I do. For me not being a clinical nurse held some significant emotion, even as I was teaching and educating nurses. I definitely grieved.”
Her memories also reveal some unpleasant aspects she experienced in her latter time as a nurse. She refers to a toxic work environment, which encouraged behaviours that challenged her personal values. Yet, her love of caring for people never waned.
“ED (Emergency Department) is not what you see on TV. It’s definitely resuscitations for sure, but the bulk of your work is with people who have significant psychological trauma, illness and who are marginalised. Some people come in for companionship and connection.”
She explains how on one occasion she gave a homeless man a cup of tea and a biscuit, while also giving his feet a clean and gave him a new pair of socks after rummaging through the stash of lost items. “I got into trouble for that, but I just wanted to show him that someone cared. It was in these moments that I could see why God tells us to love these people. I ended up having a great time chatting with him. I just loved hearing about his story.”
She reflects further on how confronting being a carer can be, “It is ok to look after people who are nice, but what if you are called to look after someone who is a murderer? What happens to the call to care for someone who just spat in your face or hit you? Your instinct is to fly back at them, but once you are safe, once you are not in danger, how do you love your neighbour in that situation?”
A new beginning
Fast forward to the beginning of 2021. Katie is no longer living in Sydney. She gave up her secure role as a lecturer. She is living in Canberra where her family relocated.
But there is a thread she weaves into her new life.
It is a thread woven into a role she undertook for the past three years as a Chaplain for the NSW Ambulance Service, which will continue in her new situation.
She is also a Researcher.
“I am doing a PHD exploring the role and value of chaplaincy in the Ambulance service.”
The work comes from years of understanding as a frontline practitioner and as someone who has sat in some of the hardest places with paramedics as a Chaplain.
Looking from the outside, it is easy to see Katie being an ideal fit for this unique role. From her perspective, she thinks her current situation reflects a divine sense of humour as she recalls a time when talking to a close friend, she said that the last two things she wanted to do was undertake a PHD or go into a direct Ministry role. She also ponders the balancing act she needs to perform in her current dual role.
Self-awareness in her new role
“I am very conscious and aware of the baggage that I bring after 20 something years of dealing with trauma, death and humans in ways that you really shouldn’t see humans. It gives me a good insight that I am just as much at risk as the next person. The next job I go to could send me down the path of PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder). I am also aware of the steps I need to take to try and protect myself.”
This self awareness gives Katie an advantage though in her research.
“It also means that when I am talking to someone as a researcher, I understand what lies behind their words. I am not detached, even though I am completely independent when it comes to reviewing literature and data. But if I don’t bring myself into the research process, valuable information may be missed.”
A new vocabulary
Her role as a Chaplain and her studies have helped her to understand her own journey by giving her a new vocabulary. She realises that her own biography was disrupted through circumstances outside her control and now she has to reconstruct a new narrative. “In helping people, I’ve had to reflect on my own path which was headed in one direction, but suddenly because of unforeseen obstacles I can’t go there anymore. I’m on a different path now. I know it’s going somewhere, though not exactly sure where.”
She has days where she has inner debates about how to think about herself vocationally. I ask her, how do you identify yourself?
“That’s a really good question. I’ll let you know when I figure that out.” She tells a story to tease out her answer, “I am not big on labels, but sometimes you are in a situation where you have to say something. I decided to do a photography course in Tasmania some time ago and went by myself along with four single women and two couples. You inevitably get the question, ‘what do you do?’ And I thought, what answer do I give today? Depending on how I feel, if I’m feeling strong, I’ll say Chaplain. But if I’m feeling vulnerable, I’ll just say that I am a nurse. If I say that I am a researcher, that is dangerous territory because then they will ask, ‘what are you researching?’ Most of the time I’ll say that I am a nurse researcher, but I also work for the Ambulance service as a Chaplain, if I feel comfortable.”
While there are some certain things about her future, such as finishing her PHD, there are still a few open-ended questions for Katie. Potential paths beckon, without any certainty of which will open up to a lasting career pathway.
So, as we come near the end of our conversation I wonder why she chooses a mountain as her transitional metaphor?
“I love going into remote areas and hiking. I love hiking and if there is a good mountain there, I love a mountain climb. It’s how I see the transition that I’m in at the moment. This is what I wrote to prepare for our conversation:
‘I’m going to climb a mountain I haven’t climbed before. I can see it there and it’s big and I have a rough idea where I need to go but I don’t necessarily know where it goes. It’s hard and at times just plain terrifying and you are hanging on quite literally white-knuckled. It pushes me to my physical and emotional limits. It requires a ton of courage, prayer, trust.’”
Katie explains that when you are climbing a tough mountain, you must be focussed.
Sometimes, she explains “it gets to a point when you genuinely fear for your life. It comes down to you and God. When you are really scared, when there is nothing else there to distract you like your phone bills or the mess waiting for you at home, there is just one thing to focus on – the next step.”
So what happens when you get to the top?
“That is why the analogy of the mountain is so interesting. You like the challenge more than the destination. You are shut in with God and your faith for the tough, hard journey. But it is exhilarating when you get to the top. You can see where you’ve come from and where you are going.”
I ponder that this is a perfect analogy for Katie. So much about her life is open-ended. There are no neat packages finished with ribbons and bows. It is probably why the chaos of Paramedics and the ED appealed so much in her younger life, and even now.
For all that she has experienced, and is yet to experience, her faith is an anchor. This little saying, which her grandfather taught her, seems to sum it up:
I said to the man who stood at the gate of the year, give me light that I may tread safely into the unknown and he replied, go out into the dark and put your hand into the hand of God. That shall be better to you than light and safer than the known way.