How nursing at a clinic in Honduras taught Joanna J. Burgess strength and courage.

She firmly believes that finding this purpose was lifesaving.
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Joanna Burgess

Diagnosed with rhabdomyosarcoma, a rare form of bladder cancer, in 1965, Joanna Joy Burgess, RN courageously underwent chemotherapy and radiation at the age of three. Treatment also included the removal of Joanna’s bladder and the creation of a urostomy, a way to divert urine by connecting the ureters to a conduit made out of the small bowel which is then brought to the outside of the abdomen through a surgically created opening called a stoma.

Health problems persisted for Joanna throughout her life, while she received care and support from her loving family. It was through the constant care of the medical staff that Joanna’s nursing career path was determined, and in 1985 she graduated from West Virginia Wesleyan College with her BSN. Joanna’s body continued to suffer the effects of radiation and by the time she was 30, she was experiencing bone necrosis in her hips and lymphedema in her right leg. Furthermore, she was beginning to experience colitis symptoms which were unbearable at times.

She was fearful for her future, but her adventurous spirit took hold. Joanna decided to have one last big adventure before addressing these growing medical issues. She packed a bag and headed to Honduras, where she lived in the Merendon Mountains for seven months and worked at a clinic. “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,” said Joanna. “They helped me learn the endurance that I would need to face all the surgeries that were coming my way.”

Upon returning from Honduras, Joanna underwent multiple surgeries in the following years to aid multiple medical issues, including a colostomy to address the colitis that resulted from radiation. Recovering from multiple surgeries left Joanna unable to work for 20 years. Instead, Joanna focused on recovering and explored a new interest in massage therapy, which greatly improved the lymphedema in her right leg. This inspired Joanna to become an advocate for patients with lymphedema which, in turn, led her to volunteer her time partnering in the creation of the first private lymphedema clinic in North Carolina. She firmly believes that finding this purpose was lifesaving.

After 20 years of healing from multiple surgeries, Joanna went back to school to learn a specialty in nursing. In 2008, she became certified in wound, ostomy, and continence nursing and has been a WOC nurse at a small hospital for several years. Joanna has received great joy in being able to offer her patients hope in the face of illnesses, and particularly enjoys working with patients who are new ostomates.

This story was featured on WOCN.org.