Registed Nurses' Association of Ontario

Publications & Resources

Overcoming adversity

Registered Nurse Journal asked nurses to share their stories about facing adversity. In addition to the stories in the latest hard-copy edition of the magazine, we feature the experiences of two other RNs. They describe the challenges they've faced over the course of their lives and how it affected their nursing career.

Jennifer Cohen

Jennifer Cohen was 12-years-old when she woke up in a bed at Toronto's Hospital for Sick Children (Sick Kids) to find a pouch hanging from her right side, just below her waist. It was an ileostomy, or a surgical opening that allows for the small intestine to pass waste externally.

The pre-teen was in tears. She had ulcerative colitis, a disease of the colon, which was diagnosed after six months of crushing abdominal pain, bloody diarrhea, fatigue and a loss of appetite. Within one year of that diagnosis, she had been hospitalized numerous times and had three surgeries, including the removal of her colon, and two reconstructive operations to reverse the ileostomy.

Her painful symptoms continued, despite the removal of her colon, and the diagnosis was revised to Crohn's disease, resulting in a number of additional surgeries over the last 16 years.

An "amazing NP who went the extra mile, and was always around when we needed her" helped Cohen and her family through that frightening time after her initial diagnosis. She kept Cohen chipper by sharing funny stories, like the one about accidentally dropping her pager in the toilet, reaching in to pluck it out as the bowl emptied. She gave the family her personal cell phone number for emergencies, and linked Cohen with other patients who had the disease.

"She inspired me to go into nursing, with the goal of later becoming an NP," Cohen now admits. "I always knew I wanted to become a nurse...all of the good nursing care I've received over the years solidified that decision."

But four years in the nursing program at Toronto’s Ryerson University weren't without setbacks for Cohen. The summer before classes began, she had another ileostomy (this one would be in place for the duration of her studies), which meant she had to contend with restrictions, including no heavy lifting during one of her clinical placements.

Around this time, Ryerson’s program administrators called a meeting with Cohen. "They were discussing whether this was an appropriate field for me to be in," she recalls. "It was like they were trying to knock my dreams down."

With her mother there for support, Cohen explained that even with her lifting restriction, she would still be able to practise to her full capacity. Plus, her personal experiences would serve as an advantage, she argued. In fact, that point was true only a year later, when, during a placement, she cared for a patient struggling with his first ostomy. She told him how she hid her own ostomy (by wearing long tops and placing her arm over the pouch to muffle its crinkling). "Frankly, it does seem like the end of the world, but life doesn't end with it," she told him.

When she reflects on her meeting with the program administrators, Cohen says "it's upsetting that people in a profession like nursing...would think I couldn't become a nurse and tried to take that away from me." That’s why she didn't let it stop her. "I was going to be the best student, the best nurse I could be."

In 2008, Cohen graduated with honours and began working in haematology-oncology at Sick Kids. Having spent so much time there as a patient, she wanted to "pay forward the wonderful care I received during such a difficult time in my life." In 2013, she began pursuing her dream of becoming an NP by enrolling in the University of Toronto's Masters in Nursing Program, Nurse Practitioner, with a focus on pediatrics.

Cohen counts her experiences as valuable in helping to shape her practice. Despite her many surgeries and prolonged hospitalizations, she says she's proved to herself and others that her illness doesn't define who she is. She credits her family, health-care team, current professors and those who also suffer from the disease for ongoing encouragement, and for helping her to achieve her goal.

"It's important for those facing adversity to utilize their support systems. There's no need to face life-altering illnesses alone," she says. "I am determined to show others facing chronic illnesses that life can – and does – go on post-diagnosis. You just have to maintain hope and follow your dreams."


Rebecca* struggles with pain every day.

There are the chronic aches related to fibromyalgia (she was diagnosed in 2011), the throbbing in her pelvis from endometriosis (diagnosed in 2008), and the pain of depression, which she's lived with since the age of eight. These conditions tend to "feed into one another," she says, and converged as she began nursing school in 2002, where she missed clinical placements and sometimes couldn't leave her bed.

"When you have a chronic illness, you can't help but feel useless," Rebecca says. But, still, she persevered. It took her six years of obtain her degree from Queen's University in Kingston, because her conditions made carrying a full course load difficult. At multiple points, people tried to convince her to change gears and find another profession. Each time, it made her feel like someone "ripped my heart out of my chest.

"(School) was very hard on my body, but I managed to push through," she says. "When I look back (I think) how the heck did I survive?" She credits the university's disability services department, and her crisis counsellors and psychiatrist with being exceptionally supportive.

Rebecca admits "there are some nurses who understand, and then you have others who think it's all in your head, or you're faking it." She remembers being told to "suck it up" by colleagues, and that she doesn't need medications to manage her pain. Others have encouraged her to take a desk job.

But health care is something Rebecca has been interested in since high school. She volunteered at a Hamilton hospital "for fun," delivering flowers and helping out in day surgery and on the medical floors.

In health care, Rebecca feels gratified. "You feel like you're truly making a difference," she says. Patients now tell her: "You listen to me. You care when I'm in pain."

Rebecca’s medications can make it difficult for her to work at times, so she takes time off to ensure she does not risk patient safety. Sometimes, it takes as long as a month for her to recover from flare-ups with her fibromyalgia, which causes nerve pain and extreme weakness that can make it difficult to lift a chart or a cup of coffee.

While at work, Rebecca takes her breaks, sitting to give her body a rest. And because stress aggravates her condition, she can become anxious. When that happens, she finds a quiet place to calm herself down.

In long-term care, where she currently works, Rebecca says her spirits are buoyed when residents give her a hug or mention they're happy to see her after she's been off for a couple of days. The "little things...just make everything better."

Her next goal? Rebecca has her heart set on becoming a nurse practitioner.

"Despite the pain, I like what I do," she says. "I just really can't see myself doing anything else."

*A pseudonym has been used to protect privacy.