Mary Jane Nealon became a nurse by default because her grades didn’t qualify her for a university scholarship, but she always felt that she wanted to write. The author of two books of poetry, here in her memoir, Beautiful Unbroken: One Nurse's Life, Nealon relates how her younger brother’s death from cancer devastated her close-knit Irish American family. We talk to her about her experiences as a health practitioner and a writer.
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You write that for years you nursed young, fatally ill adults like your brother. Was this a way of expiating the guilt you felt at not being there for him?
Being able to help these patients and their families was painful, but it also helped me. When one of my first patients, Bernard, was dying, his family put together a slideshow of his life, and they watched it with him, affirming his life. Many of my patients and their families were so wise. They were able to face death together.
I was there when my brother died, but during the time between his diagnosis and his death, I just couldn't bear to face my parents’ hopefulness. I knew, with my medical training, that he was going to die.
And you wrote your memoir to explain this?
Working with these people gave me strength, and I wanted to share this. I experienced a lot of grief but I also became stronger and happier. For many years my parents felt that I had deserted them, but over time we were reconciled. I was able to be with them when they faced their last illnesses, and it was a close experience. The most important thing I learned was that it is necessary to be able to talk about death, to have a continuing conversation.
Can you talk about how you came to nurse people with AIDS.
Nursing gave me a deeper appreciation life. This is reflected in my poetry. Without that experience my writing would have been different. I got satisfaction from my work. I didn't obsess about death. I traveled to different jobs around the country. I even worked in Hawaii, but then I moved to New York City to be nearer to my family.
I continued nursing, but I was also writing poetry. I attended classes at Columbia University and the New School. And I took part in several poetry workshops and retreats. I was finally realizing my ambition to be a poet. Two fellowships gave me time to stop working and just write poetry.
When my money ran out, I took another job nursing, in an out-patient cancer ward where people came for chemotherapy. That's how I came to be on the ground floor when it came to dealing with AIDS.
I first became aware that nurses were shunning patients with AIDS. At the time, no one knew how it was transmitted, and they were afraid of getting the disease. Patients were being left unwashed. Their food trays were left on the floor outside their rooms. They were not being cared for properly. It was a catastrophe. They were being treated like lepers. Some people said gay people with AIDS deserved to suffer. I felt I had to take a stand, so I began nursing people with AIDS.
But that changed after 9/11.
By 2001 there were drugs to treat AIDS. At that time I had been working with homeless people in shelters, many of whom had the disease. But when 9/11 happened, it was a transformative moment for me. I was terribly upset for the people who lost their lives. I knew some of the firefighters and I had friends working in the buildings, but for the first time I didn't want to rush in. I felt it was time for me to move on.
I wanted to be a writer. I was fortunate to win the Bakeless Prize for nonfiction writing. It gave me time the opportunity to finish my memoir. I wanted to positively affirm life, to communicate how death can be an affirmation of life.