In the small Kansas town where my dad, a Kansas state trooper, was stationed and where my mom worked as a physician’s receptionist, there was one city swimming pool, one bowling alley, one roller skating rink and one movie theatre (single movie changed weekly). When I discovered the library, it moved to the top of this short list of favorite landmarks. That’s where I found books—unending sources of excitement, drama, laughter and, yes, life lessons.
One of my elementary school teachers read daily installments of fiction aloud. I still remember the essence of one of the books, about the child of a migrant field worker. I suspect the magic of those schoolroom books cemented the foundation of my love for reading.
I’d ride my bicycle to the library and check out the maximum allowed number of books, filling the basket of my bike. Pretty amazing to think a stack of six unread books could fill my chest with anticipation and a sense of rightness.
It wasn’t long until I’d read every YA book the library held and moved on to adult fiction. I remember reading Gone With the Wind in the fifth grade.
Even then historical romance drew me. I began writing the story of a young girl, kidnapped and raised by the Konotoshe (not a real Indian nation), who is befriended by a cavalry trooper. I self-published using construction paper, lined notebook paper, traced pictures and brass prong fasteners. My fifth grade teacher told my mom, “I just don’t know what to do with Sheri. She doesn’t pay attention in class. Instead, Sheri is writing a book.”
When my seventh grade English teacher assigned her students to interview three people who did the type of work we wanted to do, I said I wanted to be a writer. By then we lived in Colorado. I called the Denver Post and some kind person helped me. He eventually gave me the names and numbers of three local novelists. I contacted them, went to their homes and interviewed them. One of them was William Barrett, author of LILIES OF THE FIELD and THE LEFT HAND OF GOD. I’d started writing fiction in the fifth grade, and by middle school and high school I was working on the school newspaper, entering a school fiction contest and writing a sci-fi novella for a special project.
Then reality loomed. In our large circle of family acquaintances there wasn’t a single writer and I don’t think I ever verbalized wanting to be one. Maybe if I had, my parents would have supported me in that quest. But being a writer—well, who did that? It just wasn’t a choice. Teacher, nurse, secretary—those were the choices.
I’d never been in a hospital, never had an interest in disease and didn’t know anyone who suffered with a major illness, but my mom thought I’d be a good nurse. After doing poorly for two semesters at a university (I had no idea how to study and was completely unmotivated) I returned home and entered a hospital sponsored Licensed Vocational Nurse training program. I still remember seeing my first hospital patient with an IV. It terrified me.
These were the days of The Beatles, The Beach Boys, Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young, Cat Stephens, Joni Mitchell, Peter, Paul & Mary, Elton John in his original incarnation. I taught myself to play the guitar and I was a pretty good singer. I was in a small group that occasionally performed. When I auditioned for the sergeant who managed Lowry Air Force Base’s Service Club, I met my future husband.
We met on Friday. He proposed two days later, on Sunday. I thought I was crazy to say “yes,” but it felt right, and I did. We were married three months later. Now it amazes me I did that. We didn’t know each other at all. I think today I might hire a PI and investigate anyone I was considering marrying!
During the early years of my marriage I quit writing. I didn’t read much, either. It was the decade of my twenties and I was busy working, being a wife, having fun. After about ten years I again started reading and writing.
Mom had been right. I liked nursing and I was good at it. It’s funny how casual decisions can shape our lives. My husband received orders to Los Angeles Air Force Station and I sought work at the closest hospital to our residence. The only opening they had was in the Burn Intensive Care Unit. I was twenty-two. I wasn’t so sure I wanted to work in that unit. They lent me a big picture book about burns. I took it home, thought about it overnight, and decided to give it a try.
It was a special place, filled with special people—staff and patients alike. The work is so specialized that other staff can’t float in when you’re short. It was my first experience with a dedicated team—people who willingly came in when they were needed, who supported each other. And the patients … some of those patients I remember like it was yesterday …
Like the young, handsome telephone lineman who’d sustained an electrical shock that ignited his clothes. He fell from the top of the telephone pole and suffered third degree burns over 80% of his body. I cared for him the night before he went to surgery to have both arms amputated. He cried all night, ‘bucking’ the ventilator and making it constantly alarm. He had no way of communicating with us, but we knew he could hear us and understood everything that was going on. My heart still clenches when I think of him.
Or the seven-year-old Vietnamese immigrant, riding along an LA freeway in the family station wagon when someone took a shot at it. The bullet hit the gas tank and the car exploded, killing his grandmother and sibling, and inflicting third degree burns over much of his body. He survived multiple surgeries and skin grafts to his face, head, arms and torso but will always bear the scars.
Some survived the physical assault only to succumb to the psychiatric battering. One such patient became a modern-day Phantom of the Opera who only left his home at night and shopped at his neighborhood 7-11 with a knit ski mask over his head.
I could go on and on, but perhaps I shouldn’t have even told you about these brave three. Big burns are horrendous. They can happen because of accident, abuse, attempted murder or attempted suicide.
Resuscitated people talk about dying and “going through the tunnel.” I think burn patients live in a tunnel for months—its walls constructed of pain, fear and dread. Those who exit from the tunnel still in this world are forever changed. Working with these people, I was forever changed, too. I am a first-hand witness to the incredible strength of the human spirit.
My husband left the service and we moved to California’s Central Valley, where my parents had relocated. I went back to school and became an RN. I worked in the cardiac area for a while, then moved to ER.
Emergency medicine offered an education that continued the one I’d begun in the Burn Unit. I saw human beings at their very worst—and their very best. When faced with crisis, people either rise to meet it or are devastated by it. I am privileged and honored to have been present at such times. It was my job to help people, so they could rise rather than be crushed. Even with life’s final crisis, I could help someone meet that moment with dignity, free of pain and fear. Working there also made me privy to the bizarre and outrageous.
I stayed in the ER for twenty-four years, and I loved it. I’ll always be an ER nurse and always have an “ER brain.” I’m expert at prioritizing, constantly evaluating and reprioritizing. I get the job done, no matter how unpleasant. My experiences instilled within me a great compassion that encompasses the ill, the destitute, the unfortunate. Some of those experiences also made me a bit cynical.
I’m the kind of person who looked through twenty-four hours worth of dirty ER laundry for a patient’s missing glasses because I couldn’t ask the transport orderly to do that alone. (ER trash and dirty laundry are not nice.) I’m the kind of person who ran all the way through the parking lot to the street, yelling and waving, chasing the car whose occupants had left their sack of medicines behind (they lived an hour away). I’m also the person who felt incredible frustration and stress because I could only tend to one person at a time and I had several other patients who needed me NOW.
You will get an idea of the deep connection a nurse can have with her/his patient or patient’s family member in “Treasured Memory” on my Extras page.
While working, I went back to school and obtained a Bachelor of Science in Nursing. During that time I quit writing. I became the ER Clinical Instructor, which gave me a whole new set of skills. I learned lots of new computer skills, learned to teach and got very good at organization.
Seven years ago, after thirty-one years of marriage, my husband and I divorced. I’d just started really getting back into writing, and as I dealt with my unexpected single status and living alone for the first time in my life, I began to focus on that long-ago dream of being a writer.
In 2010 I was fortunate to be able to retire from nursing and focus on writing. I also read a lot, which is great fun. I love what I’m doing now. I love the new friends I’ve made and I’m proud of the way I’ve taken ownership of my new role and this new journey.
I’m sure you won’t be surprised to learn my first novel, A LOVE EVER CONSTANT, is about a nurse—a Victorian nurse who finds herself adrift after returning from service in the Crimea. I wanted people to understand how a nurse feels about her/his patient—the special connection between them, the high regard a nurse has for the person in her care. In my second novel, A HERO TO HOLD (a 2012 Golden Heart® finalist), the remarkable hero is disabled. I suspect the nurse part of me will always find its way into my books, and I think that’s good.
Thanks for visiting my website and taking the time to get to know me a bit.