Living

Nurse draws upon her own struggle with blindness to help others cope with trauma

Shelli Stanger has been blind since age 24, a result of severe diabetes. Other health problems have plagued her. But she went on to become a registered nurse and head of a hospital department. Her book “Your Story Is Your Medicine: A Prescription for Healing in an Imperfect World” tries to help people with trauma.
Shelli Stanger has been blind since age 24, a result of severe diabetes. Other health problems have plagued her. But she went on to become a registered nurse and head of a hospital department. Her book “Your Story Is Your Medicine: A Prescription for Healing in an Imperfect World” tries to help people with trauma. TNS

BLOOMINGTON, Minn. Shelli Stanger Nelson has made her peace with being called courageous.

She knows that people only mean to voice support for her, a registered nurse who became blind at 24, yet persevered to create a department devoted to cardiac patient after-care; who survived three organ transplants; who has been divorced, been raped; who has beaten cancer.

Now, she’s written a book about healing.

How courageous, right?

But Nelson knows that we sometimes regard courage as genetic, even spiritual – as if she wouldn’t have been given such traumas to bear had she not been able to cope.

“They think I’m handling my blindness because I do well,” she said. “But no one knows what I think in the wee hours of the dark night.”

“Your Story Is Your Medicine: A Prescription for Healing in an Imperfect World” is Nelson’s effort to help people overcome traumas that upend their lives. The answer, she said, lies not in thinking positive, but in first getting mad, for there is catharsis in that anger.

“We have to cry on the floor,” she said. “We have to tear our clothes. We have to rage.”

For real. Often, people resist.

“People don’t want to open up their justifiable anger,” she said. “They say it’s hard, that they don’t want to feel this, that it’s just too painful.”

Nelson reached for a glass of water with a sureness that belies her lack of sight, much like her pixie haircut belies a sometimes blunt manner.

“Why do we fear emotions?” she asked. “No one has ever died from emotions.”

Besides, she said, emotions reflect the pain of a past experience. The work lies in redefining what that experience means. Or, more to the point, what it meant.

“I remind them that the pain has already happened,” she said. “That this is the healing.”

TREATING MIND WITH BODY

Nelson was 27 when she worked with Fairview Southdale Hospital to develop, despite her blindness, a department to help guide cardiac patients through the necessary changes in lifestyle that confronted them.

“I could say to them, ‘I’m not just a person in a white coat. I know what happens when your body fails you.’”

Today, she and her husband, Brent, run the Rukha Academy of Healing Arts and Sciences in Eden Prairie, a program of energy medicine.

Time was when a term like “energy medicine” raised eyebrows. It still can.

But medical science is learning more about how a patient’s psychological state can enhance the physical treatment. Often called holistic medicine, it aims to treat the “whole person” — psychological, social, spiritual — along with the medical issue at hand.

Dr. Raja Kandaswamy, a transplant surgeon with Fairview Health Services, met Nelson when he performed her pancreas transplant several years ago. (She’s also had two kidney transplants.)

When she later developed an aggressive form of lymphoma due to her suppressed immune system, “she was devastated,” he said. But she has emerged not only cancer-free, but no longer needing dialysis or insulin. “She’s an exceptional human being in what cards she’s been dealt and how she’s faced it.”

Kandaswamy didn’t know that experience finally compelled her to write the book. Now, he’s both encouraged by its purpose, and curious to read about the medical care he gives from her perspective.

“Building empathy is a big part of what we do, what we try to achieve,” he said. “Responses to treatment aren’t just physical. There has to be a mental component. If she can put all that eloquently in a book, it could be eye-opening not only to patients, but so we [doctors] also can understand, through the lens of a patient, what they face.”

BURNING THE WOOD

Nelson’s emphasis on people feeling justified in their emotions can be difficult for some clients to accept.

“It’s not easy because we have been conditioned by society and belief systems to process things in a particular way,” she said, ticking off a familiar list: Think positive. Remain calm. Eliminate the negatives.

“But people need to have their real sadness and fear to be justified, then begin working through it, to accept that their greatest wounding can be their greatest gift. That’s what I call burning the wood. Only after you’ve burned all the wood are you ready to move on.”

She suddenly extended her left arm, stretching it out and slightly behind, her hand up as if to halt traffic. Lindi, her Australian shepherd, glanced up from where she’d been snoozing.

“Too often, we have this voice in our head saying, ‘I don’t know if this will work,’?” Nelson said. “I actually use my arm to say stop, or be quiet, to keep that voice behind me.” She laughed. “I do this a lot.”

In other words, the work doesn’t magically end, if only because life keeps happening. As the book’s subtitle notes, the world is imperfect. That’s not going to change.

“Every event in my life has been necessary in my healing,” Nelson said. “I like to say I live a life riddled with trials and saturated with glory.”

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