I was born at home during a blizzard. My parents couldn’t get to the hospital because of the snow. By the time the family doctor made it through the storm, I had already arrived.
I was afflicted with a rare congenital abnormality known as ectrodactyly, commonly known as “Lobster Claw Syndrome.” Ectrodactyly is a condition that involves the absence of one or more digits of the hand or foot. In my case, both hands and feet were affected, leaving me with three fingers on each hand and two toes on each foot.
At age 3, I contracted viral encephalitis. The physicians in the area had never seen anything like it and couldn’t help me. My aunt mentioned my condition to one of her tenants, who was a neurologist. He told my aunt to get me to Thomas Jefferson University Hospital as soon as possible. My parents brought me to Philadelphia, and I was immediately admitted to the hospital.
The only other case the physicians were aware of was a little girl who came in the week before with the same symptoms. She didn’t survive. The doctors ran tests and tried several drugs to make me better. Some of the drugs caused me to hallucinate.
Mom stayed beside me the entire time. Back then, she liked “Ben Casey,” a popular television program about a handsome, young physician. The morning after each episode, in an attempt to be helpful, she would talk to my neurologist about the disease Ben Casey explored. After several of Mom’s morning briefings, the neurologist finally offered her some advice: “Stop watching Ben Casey.”
The weeks went by, but my condition remained the same. “You weren’t getting any better, so I told God, ‘If you want him, take him. But don’t make him suffer,’” Mom said. Soon after, I started to get better. I was at Jefferson for six weeks.
Bullies and other battles
Growing up visibly different from everyone is difficult. Kids can be very cruel, and I got in my share of fights. Although I wasn’t exceptionally big or strong, I learned tenacity, to keep getting up after you’ve been hit, and to move forward.
All my life I’ve done whatever I wanted. I played little league baseball, high school football, and college football. Yet I’ve always felt the need to be better than everyone else, just to be “good enough.” Much of the discrimination that I have felt through the years has been attributed to the way I look. There is a common misconception that if you have a physically disability, you also must be mentally challenged.
Onward to adulthood. I graduated from college in 1980 with a bachelor’s degree in health and physical education, yet the only job I could find was as a substitute teacher making $4 an hour. I went back to school to get my master’s degree in kinesiology, but I ran out of finances before I could finish.
Next, I took a job as a janitor at the local power company. A supervisor suggested I go back to school to get a degree in electrical engineering.
“The company will pay for it,” he said. And that’s what I did. I worked the swing shift while going to college at night. After 12 years of night school, I graduated with a bachelor’s degree in electrical engineering from Lafayette College.
Just as I graduated, the power company was sold, and the new owners decided that anyone who wasn’t 100% healthy would be put on disability retirement. This included me. Through networking, I found a job as a consulting engineer for a company two hours away from my home, in Cranbury, New Jersey. When my contract with the engineering company was fulfilled, I knew I had to find another occupation because of an influx of cheaper labor in the field.
I had always wanted to go into the medical field, but at that time, there were very few male nurses. I took on the challenge of becoming a nurse and enrolled at Saint Luke’s Hospital School of Nursing in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, graduating in 2005.
Where I belong
After two years on a med/surg floor, I transferred to the ER where I stayed for a decade. My nursing director, Ed Knuth, was an amazing individual and saw past what some perceived as my “handicaps.” Ed saw the ability and intelligence that I brought to the ER. He was my mentor, as well as my friend.
For the next few years, I worked in level 1 trauma centers, small community hospitals, and a substance use recovery center. But when I eventually found myself back in the ER — I felt like I had gone back home. I loved engineering, designing circuits, troubleshooting, etc., so why go to nursing school? Because becoming a nurse was like completing the circle and giving back to the nurses who took care of me. Thanks, Ed, for helping me get there.
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