Child Trauma Survivor & Nursing Student Uses Instagram To Help Others
by Brittany Hamstra, BSN RN
(Almost) Nurse Leah is an inspiration to us all. She started an Instagram account to share her experiences as a student in nursing school, and what started as a casual blog of her life has transformed into a powerful platform she’s using to challenge the status quo. Through her community of 25,000+ followers, she is using her voice to break stigmas - about “eat-your-young” nursing culture, about tattoos in the workplace, about mental illnesses - all while finishing her full-time nursing program. Here at Nurse.org, we had the opportunity to speak to Leah about why she fights to empower others and how her own adversities influence her journey to become a nurse.
Images via @nurse.leah
BH: Why did you choose nursing as a career? What motivated you to choose a healthcare profession after experiencing numerous difficulties with the health of your family?
NH: I didn’t really choose nursing—it honestly chose me. I was immersed in the hospital setting from a young age and thought, “Hey, I want to be that person one day.” After going through such difficult experiences, I believe I have a little extra to offer that other nursing students may not: the ability to empathize and truly understand what it is like to not only be a patient in a hospital, but also what their family goes through.
BH: How far through nursing school are you? What have you enjoyed most about being a nursing student?
NL: I graduate in November of 2018 - so I’ll graduate in a little over two months! The thing I have enjoyed most about nursing is the hospital shadowing experience which allows me to see differences in the way individual nurses work. Some nurses work similarly, and others vary greatly. Some nurses were extraordinary and inspired me, and others didn’t care much about precepting me as a student. It allows me to see the type of nurse I aspire to be and the type of nurse I don’t.
BH: What adversities did you experience growing up and how has it affected your journey as a person?
NL: I have experienced adversities from a young age. Before I was even one, my sister and I were placed in Child Haven, a shelter for abused and neglected children, due to our abusive dad and our mom who was a drug addict. Thankfully, my maternal grandma and grandpa took us out of the shelter system. I kept in contact with my mom through the years, but my grandma and grandpa became my primary caregivers, and my sister went back to live with my mom. When I was eight, my grandpa had a tragic accident at work and a week later my grandma had to pull the plug on his life support.
Then when I was twelve, we got a call that my mom was brain dead from a drug overdose. Again, my grandma had to make the decision to pull the plug on her life support. After that, it was just my grandma and I until I turned 22. My grandma hurt her back, which landed her in the hospital. She was doing well, and it seemed like she would recover after rehab. While being transported to the rehab facility, she complained of chest pain and was brought to the hospital. She ended up coding and was resuscitated, but then intubated, and her health started to slowly deteriorate from that point on.
After a week, the nurse called me and said I needed to come to the hospital right away. My grandma was refusing treatment. The nurse explained to her that if she refused treatment, she would die, and my grandma responded by nodding her head. My grandma didn’t want to live like that any longer. As her Power of Attorney, I decided to honor her wish and stop all treatment. Within 10 minutes of stopping life support, her heart stopped, and she died.
This completely changed me as a person. I’m still not the same as I was before, and I don’t think I ever will be. Later, my emotions spiraled downward and I was diagnosed with major depressive disorder and PTSD. I failed all of the nursing prerequisites I was taking at the time and my life was basically put on hold.
Mental health awareness
Images via @nurse.leah
BH: How did you overcome those difficulties? Where did you find your inner strength to persevere and pursue nursing?
NL: I wouldn’t say I have completely “overcome” my difficulties. I believe it will be a lifelong battle, but I’m getting better at it. I decided that I wasn’t going to let anything, not even myself, stop me from achieving my dreams. I know my grandma wanted to see me succeed and that is what motivates me to continue on. I completed all of my prerequisites and applied for nursing school. I was accepted, and now here I am - two months away from graduation. It’s a surreal feeling.
BH: What advice would you give to other young adults struggling with similar traumatic experiences which may hold them back from their ambitions? How do you find happiness through dark times?
NL: I would let them know that they truly are not alone. I know it may feel that way, and I know that they feel like absolute s--- (Am I allowed to say that?) Because I felt like s---. But know that it does get easier and the world does need you. You were put on this earth for a purpose and you will find it no matter how long it takes you. It took me eight years to find mine, but here I am. Just don’t give up. I know you don’t feel normal right now, but you will slowly begin to heal.
BH: Why do you feel it is so important to publicly acknowledge and promote conversation of mental illnesses?
NL: I think there is a negative stigma towards mental illness. People are afraid to speak about it in fear of seeming “broken” and that is when people who need it most do not get help. But it’s okay to not be okay, and to need help. I want to be able to open the doorway for people to feel comfortable about speaking about their mental illnesses. I know what it is like to battle your own mind every day and to feel alone.
Earning an RN
Images via @nurse.leah
BH: What were some of your biggest challenges during nursing school?
NL: Let’s face it, nursing school is tough. I don’t care what anyone says. It is tough. I still suffer from depressive episodes and I find myself having lack of desire to study at times, but I persevered through it and will graduate with a 4.0 GPA.
BH: What will it mean to you to finally earn your RN title?
NL: It will mean that everything that I have gone through up until that moment in time has been worth it. The countless hours of studying, the depression, the crying, all of it will lead to that moment and I can finally say “I did it.”
BH: Do you know which specialty of nursing you will pursue and why?
NL: I want to work in pediatrics—specifically PICU (Pediatric Intensive Care Unit) or NICU (Neonatal Intensive Care Unit). I love children and my mind works best in an ICU environment (which I found out through clinical rotations). Children are naturally drawn to me and I’m drawn to them.
Tattoos, Social Media and career inspiration
Images via @nurse.leah
BH: How have your tattoos affected your career? Do you feel that the healthcare culture is changing regarding “professional” appearance for nurses?
NL: I am required to cover my tattoos for school - it is part of our policy - but the hospital I work at allows me to show them. I don’t believe my tattoos affect my career negatively. I have received a lot of compliments about them and they are an excellent conversation starter. I believe healthcare culture is changing in favor of tattoos. Support Tattoos and Piercing at Work (@STAPAW) is a great organization that is helping break this stigma.
BH: What motivated you to create a social media presence on Instagram and share your personal journey with other nurses and students?
NL: Actually, a few other nursing accounts that I stumbled upon after starting nursing school inspired me. I loved the content and thought, “Hey, I have a story to tell and I think people could really relate to it.” So, I jumped the gun and did it. The first “nursing” photo I posted actually received over 1,200 likes and resulted in other nurses attacking me and saying that they “eat their young.” I was appalled by this behavior. But instead of deterring me from posting more, it motivated me to keep going. I wanted to show people that not all nurses are like that and that we should not accept that sort of mentality within the nursing community.
BH: What is a quote that inspires you?
NL: While scrolling through Pinterest (yes, I’m one of those), I came across a quote that said:
“Student, you do not study to pass a test. You study to prepare for the day when you are the only thing that stands between a patient and the grave.”
That really stuck with me. Nursing school can only teach you so much. It is your job to be able to bring forth what nursing school doesn’t teach you. I want to be that nurse that truly makes a difference. That nurse that is competent, compassionate, empathetic, and caring.
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