Work and Life: A Traveling Cath Lab Nurse, His Father, and the Appalachian Trail

I am a person with a dad who loves a challenge and the great outdoors, and together we are planning a big adventure with nature. But first, a little background:

A year and a half ago, on my birthday, I woke up in my car. I was parked just off I-10 in lonely West Texas with only a defunct-looking shipping yard close by. Looking out through a windshield studded with raindrops, I saw a spectacular double rainbow with beautiful shafts of sunlight breaking through the clouds, highlighting the moist scrub desert and surrounding low mountains. Then I remembered; I had pulled over around 4 am to get some rest and hadn’t seen any of this before I closed my eyes. It was so beautiful, it seemed as if God had given me a birthday present.

I am a traveling cath lab nurse with SpringBoard Healthcare, so I often find myself in unusual circumstances. At that time I was driving between assignments, from California to New Hampshire, but going via Texas to visit my mom and dad. I took a few minutes to soak in that morning desert view and within a few hours, arrived in time for the birthday celebration my parents had prepared for me. Most of it involved eating cake and being harassed by the dogs my parents hold so dear in their hearts.

It had become a priority for me to visit my parents often, because my father has a rare type of leukemia; in his case, a blood cancer, and as a travel nurse, my work gives me the ability to visit home between assignments. Dad was initially diagnosed more than a dozen years ago and underwent an initial round of chemotherapy that was largely successful. He was told the disease would likely return in the future and he would need periodic blood and bone marrow tests to check. He made all of his follow-up appointments and was never told he needed the treatment repeated.

During this time I watched as my father’s health declined significantly over a period of years. He lost weight despite a large appetite and he became easily fatigued. He looked much older each time I saw him, despite being a young retiree.

My parents had moved to another locale in a different part of Texas just weeks before that October visit. This required, among other things, that they both get on board with new doctors. My father found a specialist for his type of disease and after many bureaucratic hurdles, was finally given “permission” to see this doctor under his insurance.

After the initial appointment and testing, during the follow-up, she bluntly informed him that his blood numbers were terrible, and that most of his bone marrow was not producing healthy red blood cells, only cancerous cells. He needed treatment quickly. My father has never spoken to me about it, but I get the sense that having been through chemotherapy once did not make him look forward to it the second time.

The best news has been that the therapy worked, faster and better than I think any of us could have hoped. Dad put weight back on, returned to his old ways of walking many miles per day, and also reverted to his vital, ruddy, youthful, and healthful appearance.

And it made me think.

My father grew up in Dutch Pennsylvania on a small farm. Both of his parents worked hard, his dad with a full-time job during the day and of course, both of them working the acreage, a large vegetable garden and some livestock. Undoubtedly, much of that work fell to my father and his siblings. In general, I consider my parents’ generation to be the last of the hard, peasant Americans. Theirs was a generation of tough people that could have walked uphill in 10 feet of snow if they had to. Both ways. Common to that generation, he speaks of his growing up poor in a proud way, smiling and saying they always ate well thanks to the fertile land they worked.

Earlier this year, we had considered just a small challenge and kicked around the idea of hiking a few hundred miles of the Appalachian Trail, from my current assignment to his hometown in Pennsylvania, but the concept built into the idea of attempting a once-in-a-lifetime event. We now plan on trekking the entire distance from Georgia to Maine, encompassing nearly twenty-two hundred miles and over half a million feet of elevation gain (you can visit our travel journal at http://www.trailjournals.com/entry.cfm?trailname=13688). I am thankful my work as a traveling nurse with SpringBoard has afforded me the means and opportunity to strike out on such an amazing adventure with my father.

I don’t truly know all that is in my father’s mind as we are so close to beginning our journey. The enthusiasm I hear from him when we talk on the phone is electric. I imagine he has lain awake often, running through his mental checklists and equipment set up. But, what does a person think when they are about to embark on a lifelong dream when just a year earlier the likelihood of this ever happening was all but nil?

And what are his thoughts when the outcome is uncertain? The Appalachian, likely the most well-marked trail in America, sees up to two thousand people a year attempting a pilgrimage of its length. Statistically, around one in five people who aim to hike the entire distance are successful. This won’t be a walk in the park, even though the trail will take us through many state park lands.

But, I have no doubts. My Dad comes from a tough generation and I’m excited to see him succeed.

 

Derek Fitterer, RN, and his father at the top of Springer Mountain in Georgia, the official southern starting point of the Appalachian Trail. Derek comments, “Of course, we had to hike eight miles up the mountain to get there!”

Derek Fitterer, RN, has been a cath lab traveler for the past few years. He loves the workload and constantly changing environment of the cath lab.