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Elise Tarbi, PhD, MBE, CRNP, Nu’12 GNu’15, GR’20

“Oddly enough, these days I keep daydreaming about what life was like two years ago, before I gave birth to my son, when I carried him in my body for two full weeks past his due date.

It was an eerily similar feeling to this time of social isolation during the global COVID-19 pandemic – feeling trapped, inside my body and my home, and feeling so completely alone. Though at that time I could see loved ones much more freely, the feeling of being very pregnant created a sense of isolation from other people, even when they were within 6 feet. Similarly, in May of 2018, my world was suspended in uncertainty, not knowing when my child would arrive, what labor and birth would be like, who my child would be, and who I would be on the other side. Like all of us now, I felt I couldn’t make a plan beyond any given day.

Two years ago, during the weeks of late pregnancy, the period surrounding labor and birth, and the haze of new motherhood, my world was also upended. And much like now, I encountered my own fragility, the fragility ofthe human condition, much more intimately. A good friend of mine told me I would know when I was having real contractions when I felt pain so intense, I wondered if I was dying. Looking back on 30 hours of labor and a c-section delivery, those words still ring true. For me, the experience of a never-ending pregnancy, a not-my-birth-plan birth, challenges with breastfeeding, and sleeping, and bonding – it was one marked by a sense of lack of control, of being out of control. My carefully constructed plans were shattered again and again. Not so gently, I’m reminded now how the unpredictable nature of existence does not care much for our plans.

As a nurse-researcher devoted to exploring the existential experience of serious illness, I can’t help but reflect on the multitude of existential concerns I am, and we all are, encountering during this crisis. These concerns arise when we confront the boundaries of our existence – our physical, social, and psychological worlds – and have to attempt to make sense of what it all means. Frequently, we feel a sense of existential distress when our fundamental expectations or assumptions about the universe are challenged, leading us to rethink and redefine who we are and what we know. In my research, I’ve found that human connection can be a powerful force for adapting to these existential challenges. Thankfully, I think we know this intuitively as nurses.

Two years ago, I had nurses and midwives who held my hand through my labor and helped me make peace with the birth. When I couldn’t make the decision about an epidural, one midwife told me, “You can handle the pain, but you don’t need to suffer.” When my son was in the NICU and I wondered how I would ever “successfully” breastfeed, a nurse reassured me that while she was an expert in neonatal intensive care, I was an expert in taking care of my son. Nine weeks ago, when my toddler spiked a fever in the early days of a global pandemic, again I reached out for help and a nurse held my hand, this time through the phone. I spoke with a nurse at our pediatrician’s office in the middle of the night and told her, “I wouldn’t normally call about this,” explaining that my son has been sick every other week since he started daycare. “Right,” she responded, “But life isn’t normal right now.” With that statement, a nurse helped me, once more, to make sense of my chaos. I do not know what lies ahead, but every day, I am so grateful to be a nurse, to be taught by and cared for by nurses, and for nursing’s much-needed presence in our world.

Anything else we should know?: As a nurse in the medical intensive care unit and a palliative care nurse practitioner, I have had the privilege to walk alongside many patients and families during some of their darkest moments. As a PhD student trying to finish her dissertation with a new, very demanding, toddler coworker, the COVID-19 pandemic introduced me to some dark times myself. While fully acknowledging how grateful I am to be healthy and engaged in work I am truly passionate about, I have found this time to be full of new and unexpected challenges. It is by the grace and generosity of my nursing colleagues and peers that I was able to make it through to graduation and I wanted to write this to extend a wholehearted thank you to them!”

To submit your own story, visit www.nursing.upenn.edu/humans.