- Success Stories -

The Nurse Who Learned to Heal Herself First

A health care practitioner details how she learned to prioritize her own wellness.

Jenn Mears

Life has an uncanny way of throwing us off balance and messing with our plans. Sometimes, all we need is a minor adjustment to get back on course; other times we need a complete reset, a core-level change that alters our path indefinitely.

It’s rarely an easy or comfortable experience.

The serenity prayer says: “Grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.”

To that I might add: “and the sense to acknowledge when I need help along the way.”

That’s a bit of life wisdom I acquired the hard way.

Today I work as a family nurse practitioner at the LT Proactive Care Clinic in St. Louis Park, and my work is primarily about helping other people optimize their health. And yet, for a long time, my own health was not priority number one for me.

For over a decade, I worked in a specialized hospital-based practice, using advanced technology to identify and treat disease. In most cases, I was taking care of patients in the advanced stages of chronic and acute illness.

In this line of work, our focus was not on prevention, but managing the complications caused by disease. We were the end of the line. And while Western medicine excels at treating many disease-related complications, it comes with a huge price tag, financially and physically, for everyone involved.

I loved what I did, but it was emotionally draining work. We were medical mechanics reinforcing a car held together by masking tape. Over many years, I started to realize how defeating and depleting it was for me: Our specialty wasn’t designed to catch people in the early stages of illness, and so we were never able to provide truly preventative care. I just felt as though my hands were tied.

Our specialty wasn’t designed to catch people in the early stages of illness, and so we were never able to provide truly preventative care.

Then life threw me a curve ball.

When my twin daughters were two years old, we lost my father-in-law in a tragic accident, and shortly thereafter, I became pregnant with our third child. The pregnancy was high-risk and complicated, emotionally and physically.

Our daughter was born with a very rare chromosomal issue and the geneticist, who came to speak with us after delivery, was not very encouraging about her prognosis. I mentally checked out of any future planning, because thinking about the future was just too daunting. At that moment, I had to focus on the here and now. My daughter’s survival depended on it.

She had multiple surgeries, with many complications, and she was in the NICU numerous times in the first year of her life. Even when she was home, her bedroom was like an ICU – oxygen tanks, heart and breathing monitors, feeding tubes, and medical therapies.

I only trusted myself to care for her, so I refused outside services and I became her full-time nurse. She was so complex, so fragile. My focus was getting my family through each day, relatively unscathed.

We were lucky enough to have a network of friends and family who helped put food on the table and care for the twins, and while I was incredibly grateful to all of them, I also felt indebted. Accepting help meant admitting weakness, and I pressured myself to rise to the occasion and see my family through the crisis as independently as possible.

Once my daughter’s health issues began to improve, I went into an emotional tailspin, a post-traumatic stress syndrome of sorts. I didn’t quite know how to pull myself out.

We had dealt with her health crisis for almost two years, and now I was running on empty, still focusing on caring for others and completely lacking in any self-care measures.

I have this tendency, once the storm has passed, to overload my plate with more things to do. In this case, I wanted to return all the generosity that our friends and family had shown us, or at least pay it forward to others in need, but that came at a cost.

While I focused on feeding my children well – all organic, no formula – when it came to my own diet, I thought of food only as sustenance, a way to get through the day. My sole focus was on my children, and my own health was suffering.

On top of it all, my genetic pool is littered with chronic health issues. I lost my father to pancreatic cancer at 52. My mother developed breast cancer at 54. Hypertension, stroke, diabetes, and high cholesterol all run in my family. I knew it was a recipe for disaster.

We’d had a Life Time Fitness membership for several years, and I’d been active prior to the birth of my youngest daughter. I’d go to spin class and take the twins to the childcare center. Our youngest was too medically fragile to go to childcare, so for almost two years, my gym bag sat idle in the dark corner of my closet.

During that time, exercise seemed like a luxury that I just couldn’t afford.

When my daughter’s health improved, I finally made it to the gym with my husband’s encouragement. He was concerned about my health and had been pressing me take better care of myself. It was the first time I’d worked out, and the first time I’d taken any steps toward self-care, in over two years.

I walked on the treadmill (that was all I felt like I could manage) and while I walked, I read an entire issue of Experience Life magazine, from cover to cover.

I was feeling distressed and disheartened that day. I was searching for inspiration, and something about reading that magazine triggered a powerful realization for me: I knew that I needed to start taking better care of myself, or else I wouldn’t be around to care for my children.

That evening, I crafted a letter to Experience Life’s editor-in-chief, Pilar Gerasimo. It was my cry for help, and it was very difficult to write, because it meant publicly asking for assistance from a total stranger.

It’s always been difficult for me to admit that I can’t do it all. And yet, I found writing that letter to be strangely cathartic. I wasn’t at all sure I’d receive a reply, but at least I was finally admitting that I couldn’t continue in the direction I was going.

To my surprise, not long after I reached out to Pilar, she responded personally, asking to meet with me. It was that meeting that helped turn the tide for me.

After talking with me for a while, Pilar compassionately reflected that this crisis I was experiencing could be an opportunity to grow and evolve in ways that would change my life for the better. But unless I offloaded some of my commitments and began taking better care of myself, she noted, I wasn’t going to be able to fully seize that opportunity, and I risked breaking myself down in ways that wouldn’t serve anybody, least of all my children.

With that in mind, Pilar connected me with some coaches whose work had helped her rethink and rebalance her own priorities. Framing it as the basis for a future article, she arranged for me to consult with them.

First I met with Maryanne O’Brien, founder of Live Dynamite. She helped me acknowledge that I was existing in a hyper-stressed state, and that I needed to get comfortable with doing less, given the limited time and energy I had. The cards were dealt, and I needed to play my hand.

Maryanne had echoed Pilar’s observations about my current situation. To have these two very busy and inspirational women look at my life and recommend in no uncertain terms that I slow down, offload electives, and say “no” — it felt very liberating.

Next, Pilar connected me with Kate Larsen, founder of Winning LifeStyles. Kate helped me to examine my priorities, and recognize that putting my personal health close to the top of the list was paramount to everything else I was trying to do.

What became clear to me through these coaching sessions was that while I had known a lot of this instinctually, I just needed somebody else to validate for me that self-care was not selfish, but a necessary part of being a parent and a caregiver.

That was a colossal mind shift — as many parents and caregivers can attest.

So I started saying “no” to unnecessary commitments. I slowly edged my way back to the gym. I started setting realistic health goals, and I began focusing on food that would nourish, not just sustain, my body and brain.

Over a period of years, once I started exercising again and eating healthfully, I started researching the fields of functional medicine and epigenetics.

After reading The Blood Sugar Solution by Dr. Mark Hyman, I decided to put some of my family on an elimination diet. My husband and I felt amazing, and family members with chronic health issues were able to reduce their medication load. It was a family case-study of sorts, and the results were incredible.

In two months, I was able to drop my cholesterol levels by 25% – with diet alone.

My new conviction was that “food is medicine,” and I felt I owed it to my family and my patients to walk my talk, both in terms of my nutrition and my larger lifestyle.

Having a child with special needs and having my own “disease prone” genes necessitated that I dig deeper and determine how to dial-down the damaging alterations that were occurring in my body at the cellular level. At the same time, I also needed to promote the key factors that lead to healthy cellular function. I had to switch gears, both personally and professionally, to guide my new preventive health care focus.

It took considerable self-reflection. But little by little, I made progress.

Many times in my life, I realized, I had set the bar so high that I was destined for failure. In some aspects of my life now, I’ve had to become comfortable with mediocrity —turning in a less than stellar performance in one area in order to show up more fully for another that matters even more.

In some areas, I had to give up being excellent and settle for good enough — and that was OK!

Having a child who struggles with things that so many of us take for granted has really put life into perspective for me. I am much more appreciative of what my body can do and what I need to do to help it function optimally.

Optimal health is variable — for everyone. Certainly, my daughter’s optimal is different from mine. Despite many physical challenges, she’s happy and thriving. It’s very inspiring.

My new normal isn’t where I thought it would be ten years ago, and I’m content with that. I’m actually more motivated to maintain what I have, instead of seeking perfection. I’m exercising. I have a personal trainer. I’m eating healthfully. These are no longer luxuries for me, but necessities.

It used to be that if I couldn’t do something perfectly, I wasn’t motivated or energized to do it at all. I am no longer of that mindset and, actually, it feels really good.

Taking a position at LT Proactive Care in the summer of 2014 was the answer to my personal and professional goals. I felt like the stars had aligned. The clinic’s partnership with Life Time Fitness is a natural marriage of optimal medicine and preventive lifestyle management.

My meeting with Pilar had sparked the cascade of events that eventually lead me to Proactive Care. So it was an amazing synchronicity when, years after our initial meeting, and only a month or so after the clinic had opened, I ran into Pilar in the Clinic hallway.

She recognized me immediately, hugged me, and we both got a little teared up.

I really felt as though my life had come full circle. Pilar had answered my call for help and provided the tools I needed to resolve my own personal crisis. In return, I was able to make changes to my life and work that now allow me to pay that gift forward.

It sounds so cliché, but my mindset now is that life is in the moment, and I’ve learned this lesson by following the less traveled path, not so much by choice as by necessity.

I had to learn to think in terms of baby steps, and to keep the bar within reach. It took work to appreciate my body and what it has to offer without judgment, to forgive myself the minor indiscretions, and move forward.

Perfection is relative. You have to seek the optimal you — not what anyone else deems perfect – and value what makes you unique.

If there’s any one lesson that came out of all this for me, it’s this: Accept help when it is offered, or ask for it when you need it, and know that your success may depend on it.

I know mine certainly did.

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