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

Despite her growing medical problems, Joanna went to Honduras to serve as a nurse.

Despite her growing medical problems, Joanna went to Honduras to serve as a nurse.

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

By the time I was thirty, my body began to significantly break down, a result of the high doses of cobalt radiation. These were things that were not anticipated back in 1965. I was experiencing bone necrosis in my hips and would ultimately need to have hip replacement surgery. My right leg had developed lymphedema and had swollen to double its normal size. Both conditions were beginning to cause me difficulty in walking and it was not known if surgery would restore my ability to walk comfortably or even allow me to walk at all. Furthermore, I was beginning to experience colitis symptoms which at times were unbearable.  Fearful about my future, I was not yet ready to face the medical decisions ahead of me.

At times in my life when I have felt uncertain of what to do I have tended to take a pause and retreat to an entirely different path. I had always wanted to experience life in a different culture and suddenly an opportunity came my way. I had been given the name of a nurse practitioner in Honduras who ran a medical clinic and was looking for assistance. Despite my growing medical problems, I knew that I needed to be there. Packing up my personal medical supplies, a book of Spanish medical vocabulary and a guidebook called When There Is No Doctor. I went to Honduras and found myself living high above the clouds in the Merendon Mountains for seven months. My work at the clinic involved keeping the daily events organized and dispensing countless amounts of cold medicine and anti-parasitic drugs. Although it took me 45 minutes to make the 10 minute walk between the clinic and the home I shared with the nurse, I made my way, step by step, every day.

Joanna lived in the beautiful Merendon Mountains and developed a love for the Honduran people. Photo source.

Joanna lived in the beautiful Merendon Mountains and developed a love for the Honduran people. Photo source.

Although it was the medical work at the clinic that called me to Honduras, it became the love of the Honduran people that kept me there in spite of my increasing medical problems. These were happy people who sat in darkness at night in their mud and straw homes and shared the stories of their lives. They taught me to make tortillas on their mud stoves. They showed me how to get good rest swinging in a hammock. The children sang and danced around me in their bare and calloused feet and with an innate compassion, they walked with me step by step at a slow pace up and down the steep roads. They helped me learn the endurance that I would need to face all the surgeries that were coming my way. In their small church they would sing, “I will walk with the wings of angels; I will walk and not grow weary.” These would become the words that I would remember as I returned home to face my first surgery and the years of healing to follow.

Over the next two years, I ended up having multiple surgeries beginning with the anticipated bilateral hip replacements for bone necrosis. But beyond that, and not expected was plastic surgery to my lower back to replace skin destroyed by radiation burns, bilateral aortic bypass grafts for necrosis of the main blood vessels to my legs, and a colostomy for radiation induced colitis. Prior to having the colostomy surgery I sobbed in the hospital waiting room on my sisters shoulders. I didn’t know if I could handle another surgery, especially one that would cause yet another alteration of my body. I tell people that this is the part of having cancer that I truly remember; the difficulties of emotionally preparing for surgery, facing unknown outcomes and excruciating pain and then the years of recovery that would follow.  It would leave me unable to work for almost 20 years.

I wanted a “normal” life free from pain and surgery.  I had lost my joy so beautifully bestowed by my mother.  Finally one night, in the depths of pain and exhausted from tears, once again I saw that light from long ago. It lingered in my bedroom until I felt peaceful and comforted. I felt that it was telling me that I would find my joy again.  I just needed to ask for it and believe once again in my greatness.  It came to my mind that my life really was a series of beautifully chosen paths of self discovery, a steadfast walk, and a journey.  I had survived a life altering illness and had grieved my losses.  I was ready to run toward life again and I wanted to understand my life.

Next: Joanna Finds The Love Of 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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