1980 – 1981 – The Quarter Century Mark!

When you say it that way – it sounds old. Though turning 18 or 21 signals being and adult (voting, drinking, signing contracts, etc.) I think turning 25 is a more significant birthday. That’s when rental car companies stop charging a premium! You must be an adult for sure! But more importantly, most 25 year olds have been on their own for a few years and have been making independent life choices for a few years.

When I turned 25 in October 1980, I’d already had one job post-college and was starting my next one (not counting my gigs in the bookstore and fish restaurant!) I’d moved four times in two years – including moves between three states – and I was back where I started. I was “comfortable?” with the notion of being single (not forever – of course.) I was “unattached” for all of 1980 and 1981.

There was no doubt that I suffered “burn out” from the stressful conditions of my first job as a play therapist in Baltimore. When I had the chance to return to Durham NC where I first worked in the play therapy department at Duke University and join a team with five other play therapists, I couldn’t say no. I had a chance to work in the new hospital at Duke Medical Center that opened in October 1980. I had to give it one more shot.

Maybe it hadn’t worked out in Baltimore because I was the only play therapist in the outpatient clinic. I only had 30 minutes to an hour to develop a relationship with parents and children. I often felt like a glorified “baby sitter” keeping children “entertained” while they waited for their appointment. Before giving up the career forever, I wanted to make sure that it wasn’t just the setting that had soured me on the job.

I enjoyed my first year back at Duke. The head of the play therapy department was someone I’d worked with when I was a student at Duke and she created a supportive, professional environment. The head of the Pediatric Department – Dr. Katz – was supportive of a play therapist’s role in providing superior care for hospitalized children. I had a co-worker – Alex – who had been an elementary school teacher and had a calm, reassuring manner. It was the perfect opportunity – if I didn’t enjoy being a play therapist here – I would know it was not the right job for me. The two of us covered the 32 beds designated for children from birth to six. There were 3 separate playrooms – one for each age division (0-6), (6-12) and teens.

The patient population was more diverse than the patients in Baltimore. As a regional medical center, the patients at Duke came from all over North Carolina and sometimes beyond. They came with serious illnesses – cancer, cystic fibrosis, sickle cell anemia, life threatening developmental issues and heart disease to name a few. It is hard to remain objective and dispassionate when you’re attending the funeral for a toddler who was completely fine one day and diagnosed with a brain tumor the next.

Death and dying – you can read all the Elizabeth Kubler-Ross books you want – it is never easy to watch a child die. The memories of the final days of a few special children will never leave me. It was no surprise that I found the “Graveside Rites”  for one of these angels among my keepsakes. I can picture her as if it were yesterday that I sat by her hospital bed and it’s been more than 30 years.

“Anne was a beautiful child, so full of life. Her eyes sparkled with the innocence of childhood, her voice filled with the laughter of a contented heart. She was truly God’s gift to us and especially to her parents, brother and extended family. Though the Lord allowed us to have her with us for only a brief span of time, our lives have been touched and enriched by each moment of each day. Her life has become part of our lives, etched deep into the memory banks of our minds, and into the very depths of our hearts. As we watched Anne throughout her life we learned something very vital, and that is, life is sweet and precious, and even though illness may besiege us, we can smile and play and enjoy what God has given us each day.

None of us know how long any of us shall live. Therefore, each person should make the most of each precious moment, and in so doing, their lives can be filled with precious golden moments too. When we make the most of our time together, we will not come to the graveside of a loved one with regrets or guilt, but with thanksgiving to God for those golden moments, and those golden moments become golden memories to bless us in the years to come.”

I have no regrets about taking my second job in play therapy because when I left it to start law school in 1982 – I knew that I would not look back with longing, wishing that I could be a play therapist again. I had given it my best effort in two different settings and I knew it was not the career for me. Somewhere during my time as a play therapist at Duke I realized why:

1. It took all of my emotional energy to make it through a day. I knew that if I ever had children of my own, I would have nothing left for them after a day at the hospital.

2. I felt powerless. It was important to help patients have as “normal” a childhood as possible despite their IVs, chest tubes, oxygen tanks, etc. – but I couldn’t change the course of their disease. I also felt powerless among the medical staff. Some physicians valued my input about the emotional needs of a particular child but when a new chief resident took over (usually every 6 weeks) treatment protocols often changed dramatically. Quite often the need for children to play was given very little significance.

I enjoyed being part of a tight-knit supportive staff. I also enjoyed the relationships I had with some parents and children. But at the end of the day, more often than not, I didn’t feel that what I was doing really mattered.

As for my personal life in Durham, it was nice to be back in a familiar town. After studying in Scotland for a year after college, my college roommate had returned to Duke for physical therapy school. I rented a house with a PT student – Susan, a woman from California who became a good friend, and two other graduate students – Jim and Kevin. I was single; dating some but not finding Mr. Right and growing increasingly tired of the search.

(Mr. Right is eagerly reading these entries knowing that it is almost time for his appearance in my life story. I think he’s nervous about what I might say since he cringes every time he mentions it.)

At some point in 1981, I decided I would apply to law school. I knew I needed to save money so I took a second job working nights as a waitress. I took the LSAT (law school aptitude test) and on my first try without any particular preparation, I scored in the mid-500s (on a scale of 100 – 800). I took a review course and scored in the mid-700s the next time I took it. I was never good at aptitude tests (usually a timing issue) so I was thrilled with my second score.

I felt completely unfettered in deciding where to apply. I could go anywhere I wanted. I applied to Michigan (quite a long shot), Denver (I’d never been to Colorado but it seemed like a fun place to live), Washington University in St. Louis (not sure why although it is where my grandfather had his first teaching assignment in the 1920s), University of Maryland (the law school was in Baltimore) and University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill. I can’t remember whether or not I applied to Duke since it would have been very unlikely I’d get in or could afford to go if I did. I was still paying back student loans from my undergraduate years there.

When I reached the first anniversary of my play therapy job at Duke, I was pretty sure I would not see my second. I wanted out – and I struggled with increasing depression and anxiety. Sometime before my 26th birthday I had my first panic attack. On a Sunday afternoon, for no particular reason that I could identify, I had an irrational fear that I could not control – I was convinced that if I was alone when it got dark – I would die. As it got closer and closer to evening, the panic rose. Before it got dark, I called my boss, who was also my friend. She dropped what she was doing and came immediately. I was not alone – I did not die.


2 thoughts on “1980 – 1981 – The Quarter Century Mark!

  1. Still reading and hoping your life takes a more pleasant turn soon.


  2. Wow! My step-sister works as a nurse. At one point, she worked mainly with the terminally ill kids. I KNOW I could not do her job, though I know she has touched many lives for the better.


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