I was a busy 18 year old college student, trying to balance the new onset of college level education with part-time employment. I had been a nursing assistant over the summer, and scheduled myself for part-time hours over winter break to save up enough money to buy next semester’s textbooks. At the time, I was a pre-med student. My coursework was full of biology, chemistry, biochemistry, calculus. I was attending a religious school, so I had to throw in a biblical literature course for good measure (that may be a story for another day). In actuality, I was spending more time with the fetal pig (named “Ignatz” by my lab partner and I) that we were dissecting in anatomy and physiology than I was with any human beings. I loved the science aspects of my learning. But, I could already tell that I did not love the lab. In fact, I hated it. I am a social being, and I craved connection and conversation. And so, just a few months in, I was beginning to have my doubts about my future in lab science and medicine, although I wasn’t voicing them out loud.
One day over winter break, I walked onto the unit of the skilled nursing facility where I had worked all summer. I reported in and during the crazy, busy rush of things going on at the start of the 3 – 11 shift, I met eyes with a resident who had lived in a double room with her spouse over the summer when I last knew her. She was sitting by herself. I went over and said hello to her and asked her how she was. She teared up and said that Jack had died, she was all alone now. I was being paged to my work day, but I promised her I would come back on my break, and we would talk.
After a quick turn around to getting residents up and dressed, assisting with their dining and feeding along with sundry other personal care duties, it was finally time for my break. I knocked on the door of my widowed resident, and she invited me in. I sat down on the edge of her bed, next to her wheelchair. Her room was dimly lit, with a small light on her nightstand. She got out a small photo album and started reminiscing about her spouse. I was not a trained counselor…or a trained anything for that matter, just a listener. I liked the stories of my residents, and I knew they longed for company.
Just then, my charge nurse walked into the room and I instantly stood up, knowing something was wrong. “Get out here. Now.” she demanded. I excused myself from the conversation and left the room.
She walked me into the kitchenette area behind the nurses station and pulled out a pink sheet of paper and her pen. “I’m writing you up” she said “because no one on my staff is going to be seen sitting around doing nothing while the rest of the staff is working.” I tried to come to my own defense and tell her that I was on break, that I had worked with this resident over the summer, that she had been crying, that I was not “doing nothing.” She looked at me and said, “Let me be clear. If you want to spend your break on the unit, do something productive and scrub the sink. And, if you want to talk with people so god-damn much, then why don’t you go be a social worker.”
The rest, as they say, is history.
I signed up for Introduction to Social Work the next semester. It was like finding the glove that fits, when you didn’t even realize you were shopping for outerwear. I would read my text books and think, “Yes, of course…this makes perfect sense!” and my world began to crystallize into a framework of learning and knowing that extended across the micro to the macro system, all the while wrapping around the core essence of social justice and the centrality of human relationships. It still resonates with me to this day, every day.
I am so grateful, so deeply fortunate that early in my career, the most unlikely situation brought me into contact with my profession, and my avocation. I have continued to explore the nuances of social work across clinical intervention, supervision, community organizing, teaching, research and scholarship. That exploration will continue, undoubtedly, no matter what additional opportunities present themselves over the course of my career.
Sometimes, the small points of light that inspire our journey come from the most unlikely sources. I am grateful today for the grouchy charge nurse that inadvertently illuminated my path, which led me to my passion.