Joanna Burgess Discovers Her Love For Nursing

Joanna played "hospital" as a child and the interest in helping others never left her.

Joanna played “hospital” as a child and the interest in helping others never left her.

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 3 of a 5 part series – originally published on the Courage to Shine website.

My mother’s gifts to me were very different than my father’s. Like so many people who come face to face with a terrifying medical diagnosis, she was terribly afraid of my ostomy and my burns. Because of this fear, and my father’s willingness to bear that burden for her, she was actually better able to see me beyond my illness. Her distance from my wounds allowed her to see my greatness without any limitations. Together we would get lost in a world of great imagination, storytelling, dance, creativity, music and art. This gave me a freedom to joyfully explore and embrace my life.
My mother said when I was born, she saw and felt joy, so she chose Joy for my middle name. She would make certain that cancer would not erase my joy. Dancing on that footbridge in my little red shoes – anyone could see that she was succeeding. When I was about 8, my mother and I created a small hospital in our basement. My little doll beds were lined up into two rows. We made IVs from empty drink bottles and tubing I found in my father’s workshop.  Some of the beds had oxygen tents made from plastic wrap. All of my stuffed animals had their own charts where I recorded their vital signs. My mother and I made up names of diseases that we put on empty pill bottles. I immersed myself into this world we had created in the basement and all I wanted to think about was becoming a nurse. As I grew older my mother worked out a way for me to change my clothes without revealing my ostomy and bag. She then encouraged me to go to slumber parties. She encouraged me to learn to play the piano (really a must for a minister’s daughter) and to play the flute in the concert band and even the marching band. And when I was chosen for the lead in my junior high school play, she helped me learn my lines. These many small accomplishments established in me a foundation for the self confidence I would need later on in my life.

In that little homemade basement hospital, a seed was sown that in 1981 would come to fruition when I was accepted into nursing school at West Virginia Wesleyan College.  I completed my BSN in 1985. My first nursing position was at Duke Hospital in the Department of Pediatrics.  It was then that I obtained my medical records from Boston Childrens and first saw the word “rhabdomyosarcoma” as my diagnosis. This “rare cancer,” as I had always heard it referred to, had a name! For the first time I felt a personal connection to this particular cancer and in an odd way felt as if I had discovered a treasure buried deep in a pile of medical records. I had wanted to know this cancer and I had needed it to have a name – and now it did. I wanted to better understand how it had become a part of me and how it had affected my life. I stood transfixed, holding those papers as I began to appreciate what I had survived.

Joanna's first nursing job was at Duke Hospital. Photo source.

Joanna’s first nursing job was at Duke Hospital. Photo source.

During my first year of nursing I had the opportunity to work with a three year old boy who had been newly diagnosed with rhabdomyosarcoma. He was facing many of the same things that I faced -chemotherapy, radiation therapy and a urostomy. His parents, although both in the medical field, were nonetheless devastated by the diagnosis. Like my own parents, they too were fearful of the diagnosis and fearful of their son having a urostomy, believing that it would change his personality and limit his opportunities. A good friend encouraged me to share my story with them. I had never before shared this part of my life with anyone beyond my family and close friends. But seeing this family’s daily devastation moved me. I walked into their room, a “normal looking” nurse, and walked out with a lifelong bond and connection. We remain in contact to this day sharing letters and stories and being a support for each other. They have given me insight into what my parents must have faced and I have offered them hope and guidance along their own journey.

Next: Joanna Burgess Practices Nursing In Honduras And Learns To Fully Appreciate Her Life

© 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

Sarcoma Alliance Cares for Children and Young Adults – News Release about Joanna Burgess:

If you would like to contact Joanna Burgess please do so by sending her an e-mail to and we will forward it to Joanna.

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