The Visiting Nurse Service of New York lends care and compassion in the moments of a patient’s greatest need – as they embark on restarting their lives anew.
“I never knew fear like the kind I experienced the night I came home from my operation,” says Cookie, a transgender woman finally living the life in New York City she once only dreamt was possible. “It was a confusing and scary time for me,” she allows. “Nevertheless, the Visiting Nurse Services of New York came in and made a difference in my life right away.”
Finding Her Authentic Self
Some heroes wear capes. Cookie’s hero usually walks the halls in blue scrubs. Nurse Sharone Copeland was a longtime employee of the Visiting Nurse Service of New York (VNSNY), the largest not-for-profit home and community-based healthcare organization in the United States. She was also Cookie’s salvation.
“She was like an angel sent from heaven,” says Cookie in recalling their bond. “She came inside, held my hand and told me ‘We’re going to get through this together.’ She gave me hope.”
At 62 years old, Cookie made the biggest decision of her life — to undergo gender affirmation surgery and emerge more fully the woman she always knew herself to be. Growing up in the South, Cookie had lived vicariously through her younger sisters, playing with their dolls and spending time with their friends, never feeling fully at home in her body. That gnawing sense of “not belonging” eventually had a negative impact on her mental and physical well-being.
After living as a gay man and struggling with drug and alcohol addiction for years, Cookie decided to get clean. While revisiting those vexing childhood years with her sponsor, she uncovered an undeniable truth. “I couldn’t put the little girl back inside the box,” Cookie intones in a voice lightly tinged with sorrow about the time she’s lost. “I saw the possibilities before me, and I said, ‘It’s now or never.’ And then I began the journey of becoming my authentic self.”
A Specialized Level of Care
Having never been hospitalized before, Cookie was largely unprepared for both the physical pain and the length of recovery that go hand in hand with gender affirmation surgeries. Before her first procedure — her vaginoplasty – Cookie’s doctors informed her about VNSNY and the specialized level of care and support they could provide her at home until she could complete daily tasks on her own.
However, what started as a clinical relationship between Nurse Copeland and Cookie deepened into something more powerful than either could have expected. “I looked forward to her visits each and every time,” Cookie says now. “Mentally, physically and emotionally [her support] was there. The laughter and the friendship that came out of it… it was just a joy.”
Cookie and Nurse Copeland’s story of friendship is not unlike others that have blossomed as a result of VNSNY’s Gender Affirmation Program, which currently includes over 200 clinicians, all trained and educated in the specifics of how to address the needs of people in similar circumstances. Since the program’s March 2016 inception, VNSNY has treated more than 400 transgender patients across the five boroughs. But it’s also worth noting: Their progressive program represents only one part of VNSNY’s legacy of caring — with a record of service stretching back 125 years.
Trans Patients Need Clinicians Who Understand
“This population is in need of clinicians who understand how to take care of them, because our nursing schools do not include this in their curriculum,” explains Transgender Health Expert and VNSNY Gender Affirmation Program Director, Shannon Whittington.
Those who practice under the auspices of VNSNY’s Gender Affirmation Program are trained in cultural sensitivity, social determinants of health and appreciating the value of respectfully using patients’ chosen names and pronouns. These considerations all come over and above the training they receive for addressing medical needs particular to transgender patients following surgery and throughout their recoveries.
While a well-rounded staff and variety of services certainly help, transgender patients face challenges as they adapt to their new bodies. “They often don’t realize how involved these surgeries are. Bottom surgery is no walk in the park,” Whittington reiterates. “The nurse helps with a lot of the anxiety.”
It’s not difficult for Cookie to tap into those memories. But she also recalls how her spirits brightened every time Nurse Copeland knocked on her door. “She calmed my nerves and she got me all of the things I needed here to make life comfortable,” Cookie remembers. “The grab bars in the shower, which I needed because I was weak, the elevated toilet seat; even gloves. There wasn’t a question I could ask her that was too silly. She was right on spot getting me the information I needed to help me on this journey.”
Exploring Futures They Never Thought Possible
Cookie has completed another two rounds of surgery since she and Nurse Copeland partnered in her care. And she’s continued to develop meaningful relationships with VNSNY staff members. She’s also been able to access many helpful services through a special VNSNY health plan known as SelectHealth.
Whittington often speaks around New York about the plan, which assists members of the transgender community in exploring futures they once thought impossible. “Patients no longer have to leave the country or put their health at risk,” Whittington explains. “SelectHealth pays for gender affirming surgeries and the care that follows. We’re really proud of that.”
It hasn’t been easy for Cookie to reflect on her recovery story, or to unpack the fears that overtook her during the car ride home from the hospital. But there is a noticeable change in her tone whenever she mentions her cherished friend, Nurse Copeland.
“Even if I had to go back through the pain, I would do it again,” Cookie says without hesitation. “If I had to change one thing though, it would be to make sure that the Visiting Nurse Services were here waiting for me as soon as I walked through the front door.”
Learn more about the Visiting Nurse Service of New York generally and its Gender Affirmation Program at vnsny.org.
Read More on VNSNY’s website:
All VNSNY Divisions Earn Platinum SAGECare LGBT Certification
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Last modified: December 19, 2019