The Impact of Support Through Stressful Times

Posted by Andrea Altomaro on May 15, 2017

Andrea Altomaro says the strength we can get from a support group, from our friends, family, and community, can make such a difference in our coping abilities.

Editor’s Note: The opinions expressed in this blog post are solely those of the author.

Spoiler Alert: This post discusses events in Call the Midwife Season 6 Episode 7

This week’s episode brought back a very memorable family, the Mullucks. Little Susan Mullucks was the baby born with no arms and no legs due to the damage done in utero by the drug thalidomide. I remember watching the emotional episode about Susan’s birth like it was yesterday, so following up with every one this week was exciting, heart-wrenching, and inspiring all over again.

I cannot imagine the pain that Rhoda and Bernie Mullucks must go through daily when caring for Susan. When they are at home, with family, everything is normal. Their family is normal. When they go out with Susan, they are met with stares, disapproving looks, and maybe even name-calling; it is an ever-present reminder that to everyone else, Susan is not normal. In addition to the emotional struggles, and the desire for Susan to be treated like every other child, here are also the physical struggles that Rhoda describes. Trying to teach Susan to shuffle on her bottom to get around, thinking about learning to use the toilet, and other basic skills like dressing herself—none of this is going to be easy.

I think it’s easy for all of us to see how the physical and emotional stress of having a child with special needs impacts Rhoda, Bernie, their two older children, and even Susan herself. The “regular” stress of having a family and working impacts our relationships daily, and I see this in my own home. When I have worked three night shifts in a row, and my husband has been responsible for all bedtimes and night wake-ups with our toddler, plus working every week day, we often find ourselves being short-tempered with each other. This stage of life with small children can be exhausting, and when you add on the stress of work, keeping our home clean (okay, who am I kidding—more like keeping the home running and livable, with some occasional tidying), and other commitments, it’s hard not to let everything affect your attitude. Yet, even typing that out makes me feel somewhat ashamed.

My husband and I have good, reliable jobs. We live in a nice house in a nice neighborhood. We have a healthy two-year-old son and another healthy baby on the way. Our level of stress cannot compare to what a family must be going through when one or more of the members are sick, injured, or have special needs. It was inspiring for me to see Rhoda’s strength and compassion in this episode. She helped Bernie to see that pushing for Susan to get artificial limbs was to help her through her life, allow her some independence, and show her that even though she might have to work harder than others, she can do anything she sets her mind to.

I imagine it was scary for Bernie to be so optimistic about Susan’s future. But like Rhoda said, “It isn’t enough to love her, we’ve got to fight for her!” When we saw Rhoda and Bernie come together at the end, united again in their fight to do what’s best for Susan, it brought tears to my eyes. Rhoda and Bernie were on the same “team,” and it took her really opening up to Bernie and showing him that they are both working toward the same end goal for their family to help him understand. They didn’t have to do this alone. They both felt different stress at different times, they both had some of the same worries and some different ones, but they also had each other. They would support each other through anything. It’s amazing to me that a fictional television show can provide me with such amazing life lessons when I least expect it.

As if this episode wasn’t emotional enough, I can’t ignore the storyline with Phyllis Crane and the car accident with one of the Antoine boys. This was another story that felt so close to home. I mentioned in one of my previous posts that nurses tend to get into this profession because we want to help people. I really feel that nursing and midwifery are more than just jobs; they are something that we feel so deeply called to do. The thought that we may not always be able to help our patients can be devastating. Some will simply not like us. Others will have unintended complications or problems, and might even die. In the worst situation imaginable, we might make a mistake that leads to a complication or poor outcome for someone. Like Phyllis says, “If you caused harm to someone else, even inadvertently, would it not make you question everything your life has come to stand for?”

Although Phyllis was referring to her car accident in which she hit the young Antoine boy with her vehicle, a lot of health care professionals can relate to this on a very intimate level. When you do this work long enough, we will all have outcomes that we were not anticipating, and if we feel even remotely responsible for that, it can become very difficult to cope with. We might question our abilities, and wonder if nursing or midwifery or medicine is what we should be doing. Like Phyllis said, it does make you question every aspect of your life and your career.

One important lesson I took away from both the Mullucks and Nurse Crane is that it is much more difficult to get through these trying times on our own. The strength we can get from a support group, like the one Rhoda and Bernie attended for thalidomide-affected parents, or like Nurse Crane, from our friends, family, and community, can make such a difference in our coping abilities. Sometimes, that support comes in other forms: a therapist or counselor, exercise, or a parenting support group. I know I have utilized all of these methods at some time or another during stressful and difficult periods in my life; there is no one right answer. The imperative thing, like we were reminded this week, is that you should not have to go through anything alone.

Image - Altomaro_Andrea.jpgAndrea Altomaro (MS, RN, CNM) has been nurse-midwife for the past three years and is currently working for the Henry Ford Health System. Before becoming a midwife, she worked as a nurse in the emergency department and also in labor and delivery.
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