Editor’s Note: This is the story of Joanna Burgess’s amazing and inspirational life. Joanna originally submitted the following story to be published in a major national magazine, but the magazine elected not to publish it, however their loss is our gain. Joanna Burgess is a nurse, a cancer survivor, a wife and the 2011 Great Comebacks® South Region Award Recipient and you can find out more about Joanna Burgess by clicking here. Part 5 of a 5 part series – originally published on the Courage to Shine website.
I became intrigued by the healing arts when I was unable to walk after my hip and back surgeries. I studied massage therapy and through this discipline I came to learn a treatment for lymphedema which greatly improved my condition, restoring my leg to a more normal size. This stirred a passion in me to become an advocate for patients with lymphedema which in turn led me to volunteer my time partnering in the creation of a private lymphedema clinic, the first one in North Carolina. Following my passion and seeking joy was beginning to touch every level of my being. I was not merely a wounded body, I was a body, mind and spirit remembering who I wanted to be, with a purpose to heal and be healed.
Finding a purpose in life was as lifesaving for me as were my family and the many friends who nurtured me along the way. However, despite always being surrounded by people who loved me, I felt a deep loneliness. Most of my friends and colleagues were dating, getting married and starting their own families. I knew that having children would not be a possibility for my life and I often wondered if anyone would ever truly love a person with two ostomies and significant scars mapping out a life of physical illness. Recognizing that I needed assistance I sought out a life coach who helped me to navigate the world of dating. She encouraged me and validated me as a loving person who deserved to be loved. As my self confidence began to grow, it would be a change of perception that would become my true miracle when on a nature based retreat I learned to use nature as a symbol for my life. I was in Evergreen, Colorado, high up among the bristle cone pine trees which stand bent and disfigured. Although they are not tall and straight, they survive the harsh climate by bending and twisting according to the way the wind moves them. Their strength and stamina for enduring even the harshest of conditions have made them among the oldest living organisms in the world. I came to see these trees as beautiful and a symbol of my own survival. I came to know my truth; that I too was uniquely beautiful. I believed that one day I would find love and that person would also see me as truly beautiful.
Five years ago I met my husband who has been a firm foundation under my feet. He loves me completely including my ostomies, my unique way of walking and my swollen leg. Maybe it is the engineer in him but I actually think he finds it all quite fascinating. I don’t know what it is about love, but it has also physically changed me. When I first met my husband I weighed 90 pounds. I have since gained 15 pounds! Love has put meat on my bones and I love my new shape. We were married on a beautiful warm October day a little over a year ago. My father, playing dual role of dad and minister, walked me down a grassy path lined by my friends and family to a beautifully decorated gazebo. He walked me to the waiting arms of my love named Ross and then proceeded to marry us.
Walking proudly with love in my life and a new found strength, after 20 years of healing from multiple surgeries and being told that I was too frail to work, I went back to school to learn a specialty in nursing. In 2008 I became certified in wound, ostomy and continence nursing (WOCN). I have been a WOCN in a small hospital now for three years and have received great joy in being able to offer my patients hope in the face of devastating illnesses. Many of my patients are new to their ostomy journey. Most are fearful and devastated and can’t imagine living a life with an ostomy – whether it be temporary or permanent. Some have a new ostomy due to cancer and they often find the ostomy more difficult to deal with than the cancer diagnosis. Whatever the reason for the ostomy, people often feel a sense of shame at the way their body has been altered in order to heal. I am honored to be able to tell these patients my story and to offer the hope that they too will adapt and learn to not just live but thrive while living with an ostomy. I have learned that with every patient I see, I also experience personal healing. I believe that if you truly give to another human being, you will in turn receive the gift of self compassion.
People who have survived devastating illnesses often experience a unique kind of joy in life. I, too, feel that sense of joy. It’s a kind of joy that comes from an unexpected place. It’s a joy that says I would not change anything about what I have experienced or who I have become. It’s a joy that comes from finding beauty in a wounded place. I adopted a name for this kind of joy from a friend who calls it Radical Joy. When joy emerges and springs forth from a deep wound, a radical transformation has occurred. Radical Joy moments happen all the time. Some are instantaneous and some take years of struggle to break through.
I walk up to the podium in Chattanooga, Tennessee to receive my award for being an inspiration to people living with ostomies and to tell my story. I am humbled to be given this gift for simply being a survivor and for learning to come back fully into life to give hope to others. So many things flash through my mind as my husband escorts me up the stairs to the platform. I walk proudly, cane in hand, for I have made a great comeback. I have found passion, compassion, healing and love. I was asked to tell my story because it is one of the most important things we can do in life. By telling our own story, we may touch a place of remembrance in someone else; a place that yearns to fully embrace their own life and knowing of self.
As I begin to tell the story of my journey, I realize just how far I have come and how much I have healed. I start to tremble, feeling overwhelmed by the gathering emotions welling up inside of me. A flash of light from a camera takes me back and I remember that I have not walked this journey alone. I look at my husband’s big blue eyes, breathe, pause, and continue, just like I have learned to live my life. In the audience are other people who have journeyed along a similar path to my own. They, too, have survived life altering illnesses and are living with ostomies. They, too, have journeyed back to fully embrace life. I finally tell that six year old girl with the beautiful red shoes that she has found what she has been looking for – she has found people just like her. Clickity-clack clickity-clack tap tap tap. She beams her incredibly big beautiful smile and dances on her way.
© Copyright 2012 Joanna J. Burgess
Addition links of Joanna Burgess to view:
2011 Great Comebacks® South Region Award Recipient and you can find out more about Great Comebacks® and Joanna Burgess at http://www.greatcomebacks.com/us/stories/Joanna-Burgess.shtml
Sarcoma Alliance Cares for Children and Young Adults – News Release about Joanna Burgess: http://www.prweb.com/releases/2011/9/prweb8834724.htm
If you would like to contact Joanna Burgess please do so by sending her an e-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org and we will forward it to Joanna.