At some point in time, most parents of children with disabilities come across the “Welcome to Holland” message The message originally appeared in the Los Angeles Times, in Abigail Van Buren’s “Dear Abbey” column. For those who aren’t familiar with the story, it’s about someone who plans a vacation to Italy but ends up in Holland instead. This story has guided my life as a parent of a child who is disabled and my work as a nurse and nursing educator. Below, I have adapted this message for nurses who become disabled.
I am often asked to describe the experiences of nurses who become disabled — to try to help people who have not shared that unique experience understand it and imagine how it would feel. It’s like this…
It’s like planning a fabulous trip to New York City after graduating from nursing school. You plan to work at a prestigious medical or research center there. You buy a new stethoscope, lab coat, scrubs and medication handbook. You plan to work as a staff nurse and eventually get promoted to unit manager of a busy intensive care unit or emergency department. On your days off, you are eager to visit the Statue of Liberty, Ellis Island and the Metropolitan Museum of Art. You can’t wait to see the bright lights, Time Square and Broadway. It’s all very exciting. After months of eager anticipation, the day finally arrives. You pack your bags, and off you go. Several hours later, the plane lands. The flight attendant comes in and says, “Welcome to Florida.”
“Florida?” you exclaim. “What do you mean Florida? I signed up for New York! I’m supposed to be in New York. All my life I’ve dreamed of going to New York. I’m not old enough to move to Florida!”
But there’s been a change in the flight plan. The plane has landed in Florida, and there you must stay. The reason is that you have a disability.
The important thing is that they haven’t taken you to a horrible, disgusting, filthy place, full of pestilence, famine and disease. It’s just a different place.
So you must go out and buy new guide books. And you need to learn a whole new language — the Americans with Disabilities Act, vocational rehabilitation, reasonable accommodations — and perhaps go back to school for an advanced degree. You may need to buy some new equipment and learn new ways of performing your nursing skills. But a bonus will be that you will meet a whole new group of people whom you would never have met.
Florida is just a different place. It’s slower-paced and less flashy than New York. But after you’ve been there for a while and you catch your breath, you look around and begin to notice that Florida has beaches, warm weather, magnificent sunsets and palm trees. Florida has the Salvador Dali and Morikami museums. And it has patients who still need your care — in hospitals, nursing homes, health departments, schools, community centers, camps, case management, infection control, administration, teaching and research positions.
But everyone you know is busy coming and going from New York City. And they’re all bragging about what a wonderful time they are having as nurses in New York. For the rest of your life, you will say, “Yes, that’s where I was supposed to go. That’s what I had planned.”
The pain of that will never, ever, ever, ever go away, because the loss of that dream is very significant.
But if you spend your life mourning the fact that you didn’t get to New York City, you may never be free to enjoy the special, lovely things about being a nurse in Florida.