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Dear Nadine,
Does summer work offer kids any spiritual value? — Just Wondering, Barnum of Brooklyn Park

I was 19, the year I landed on my summer job feet. A fairy godmother miraculously appeared at my door one day and invited me to work as a physiotherapist’s aide for five inspiring weeks. The divine had clearly intervened, because there was one short job application, a “look me over” interview and I was off. A free ride to and from the hospital to boot was the icing on my heaven-sent cake!

My new job differed significantly from past jobs waitressing, working the shop floor or pulling pints. Here, I assisted the rehab department by clearing up, changing out forms, wheeling patients to and from their wards, overseeing the hydrotherapy pool and holding tightly onto the occasional patient while the physiotherapist wove them into pretzels.

Suddenly I was thrown into a healing world, where angels in white coats with stethoscopes strung around their necks like rosaries dedicated their lives to helping people in need. And people in need cradled strength and courage and perseverance quietly beneath their hospital gowns.

I became acquainted with a few of those people at the Therapy Gym each week. I set up the bright rubber mats, low wooden benches and plastic steps onto the polished floor and waited for the roll call of patients and wheelchairs to arrive.

These outpatients were typically grey-haired with smiles that twitched at the corners of furry lips and twinkles in eyes rimmed with wrinkles. They’d each weathered a medical tsunami known as “complications arising from diabetes” and had subsequently undergone a lower limb amputation. The hospital literature described amputation as a “life-changing experience.” After a visit to the amputee ward where patients lay in a twilight world, blinds drawn, curled like fetuses in their hospital beds, I realized that amputation was really a journey, beginning with rebirth.

And even yet, there wasn’t an outpatient among the group who wasn’t friendly and kind to me as we traveled around that obstacle course together. Now, some six weeks post-amputation, each patient, toddling on their new prosthetic limb, hung gently to my arm as they practiced stepping up and stepping down and walking along, learning to balance, building strength.

Between the gags and guffaws they used like crutches to support each other through their exercises, I began to learn a little about them. I learned that some of them suffered from phantom pains that seemed to emanate from their missing limbs. I saw that not all prosthetics are created equal and that a badly fitting prosthetic would cause discomfort, inflame stumps and create sores. And I began to appreciate the deathly dangers of diabetes and how it had affected these people’s lives.

More importantly, Harry and George and Frank and Jim and Elsie taught me about the strength of the human spirit to triumph over the most profound difficulties with dignity, determination and optimism by utilizing the love of family and the healing power of laughter to win through.

There were hugs all around the day I waved goodbye to the Physio Department. Some therapists suggested that I change my major and become a physiotherapist myself, but I didn’t. Instead, I took to heart the advice of those elderly patients and enjoyed the use of my legs.

My life moved happily forward, until I turned 36 when I was struck with a couple of blows to the chin that knocked me to the ground and took my breath away. First, I learned that my father’s cancer had returned. He was dying. Then, following numerous health problems, I was pronounced a Type 1 diabetic. The disease I’d been introduced to as a 19 year old had arrived on my doorstep like an unwelcome ghost from Christmas past.

Even as I struggled to deal with those D words (Dad’s Death and Diabetes) I couldn’t fail to acknowledge the divine order in my own illness. I had always believed that God had a plan when He sent me to work as a physio aide. And now it seemed to be unfolding before my very eyes, particularly when those D words were unexpectedly and wondrously followed by the P word (pregnancy!) — and suddenly I had a life to fight for and a baby to save.

A diabetic pregnancy, you see, is a hit-and-miss affair. But in between the pain and the fatigue, between the tri-weekly hospital visits and the ER overnighters, between the swollen legs and the sleepless nights, I doggedly pursued a course of wellness, supported as I was by my husband, mother and daughter and by the diabetic wisdom I’d acquired working as a hospital aide. So, I managed my blood sugar religiously, perfected my diet and forced myself to get off the couch and use my legs, even when a short stroll seemed like I was summiting Everest.

I also practiced Reiki and prayed, and on days when the pain was high and my energy low, I clung to the memory of those elderly patients and their warmth and their humor and their step-by-step, day-by-day determination, like a person at sea clinging to a life buoy. Until finally, a week shy of the first anniversary of my father’s passing, our son was born surprisingly healthy and well — a precious gift from God.

And so I’d say to any spirited kid considering a summer job: Go for it, with outstretched arms! You may land on the factory floor or wait tables or clean bathrooms (as I have). You may have to adapt to being at the bottom of the totem pole (as we all must do). You may find yourself working with people who are difficult or seem quite different from you (as everyone does at some point in their working lives.) But you may also stumble into a job that is rich in learning, laughter and meaning, where you will meet people who uplift and inspire you with their example and leave an imprint on your soul that will resonate through your life, for years to come.

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Nadine Penny attained her M.A. from the University of Denver in Counseling Psychology. Nadine lives in Minnetonka where she works as a medium, life issues reader and Reiki master. Contact her at nadine.penny@gmail.com and visit www.nadinepenny.com.

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