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2016 July 20 - 04:27 pm

Man’s Caregiver Experience Inspires Path to Nursing

Wife’s Long-Term Illness Gave Him an Early Start in the Field

SARTELL, Minn. (AP) — Pete Barrett was a caregiver long before he became a nurse.

His journey to his most recent nursing degree started almost 30 years ago, when his first wife, Laurel, gave birth to their son, Collin, via C-section.

In what is supposed to be a joyous time, doctors made a grim discovery: Laurel had a 20-pound tumor behind her uterus. It hadn’t been discovered because health care providers assumed the weight gain was due to her pregnancy.

More terrible news followed: Laurel was given a year to live.

That one year turned into closer to 20, with Laurel dying in January 2010. Pete Barrett’s experiences through his wife’s disease and death sent him on a new path, one that took him to central Minnesota from his lifelong home in Kalamazoo, Michigan, a place he never thought he’d leave.

This month, Barrett received his associate degree in nursing from St. Cloud Technical & Community College; he’s already been educated as a licensed practical nurse and certified nursing assistant. He works at the St. Cloud VA Health Care System, but in the future he can see going into hospice and oncology departments.

Laurel’s illness gave Barrett an early start in the field. Though what she went through was painful for him, he now can easily put himself in a patient’s or family members’ shoes.

“When I go into a patient’s room, I bring all that experience with me,” he said. “I may be more green on the technical aspects of nursing, but the compassion and dealing with people and understanding where they’re coming from is all packed in all those years of taking care of my wife.”

Those years helped mold him into a great student, said Carolyn Neubauer, who teaches the associate nursing degree courses for St. Cloud Technical & Community College.

“He is an extremely caring and compassionate student and care provider,” she said. “He, I would say, goes above and beyond for his fellow students as well as any of the patients he had contact with.”

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Laurel’s cancer fight had the rare positive side: It made their relationship and their faith stronger and deeper.

“Every day was precious,” Barrett said. “Cancer is kind of this, I call it a terrible gift, because it really makes you value each day that you have.”

Over the course of the next two decades, Laurel would have six major surgeries and numerous rounds of chemotherapy for her liposarcoma.

“She was amazing,” Barrett said. “We had a lot of ups and downs over 20 years. When she was sick, we were kind of hunkered down at home or in the hospital, but when she felt good, we were out making memories with our son, traveling.”

Laurel tried to stay as well as possible so she could see her son’s milestones. She was able to see him graduate from high school, but she ended up missing his college graduation and his wedding.

Barrett’s nursing career unofficially started then, with him giving her care and comfort at her bedside.

“She had a lot of struggles, and people would ask me, ‘How did you do that for 20 years?’ Well, my response is always, if I had known at the beginning that we were going to do all of this for 20 years, I might have punched my card back then and said, ‘No, I don’t want to do it.’ But God only gives us a day at a time, and he only gave us what we could handle, one day at a time.

“So as I look back, I think, wow, 20 years of caregiving for her, but really it was 20 years of one day at a time. Sometimes it was only one hour at a time, or 10 minutes at a time, trying to get through really tough situations,” he said.

She stayed alive so much longer than her prognosis that the couple wondered if they wouldn’t be one day rocking grandbabies on their front porch. Still, every time she had a surgery they had to have the conversation: What would happen if she didn’t come home?

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After Laurel died in 2010, a mutual friend introduced Barrett with his now-wife, Joy Anderson Barrett, who had recently gone through her own tragedy, losing her husband to a heart condition in 2009. Joy, who lived in central Minnesota, had two children at home and couldn’t get out much, so she put thoughts to friends and family members in emails. That mutual friend who was in the email group asked Barrett if he wanted to read the emails, thinking it would help him, and linked the two.

Barrett didn’t respond for a while, then decided it couldn’t hurt to read the emails. He and Joy Anderson Barrett started corresponding.

“We emailed probably 100 times in a week, just connecting on all these different levels,” he said. When Barrett visited their mutual friend in town, he arranged to meet Joy Anderson Barrett, and soon he was traveling to Minnesota regularly. The two fell in love.

“It’s not what the experts recommend — after you’ve lost a loved one, they recommend that you don’t make any big decisions for a year. We just felt like this was meant to be,” he said. “This is of the Lord, and we’re going to proceed with our relationship.”

Barrett sold his home in Michigan, and the two married in November 2010. They now lead grief counseling sessions for other people who have lost loved ones.

“We’ve seen amazing transformations and people realizing that they can do it,” Joy Anderson Barrett said of the healing process.

“It’s not a journey anybody wants to be on, but they will make it.”

Over the years Barrett had worked at a pharmaceutical company and was a firefighter in his home township in Michigan. After he moved from Michigan, it was time to figure out a new job. He considered being a chaplain, which he still might do one day, but something else seemed a natural fit.

“I had people tell me over the years, why don’t you just go get your nursing degree because you’re doing all this nursing at home anyways?” he said. “That thought was still in the back of my mind.”

Barrett said his schooling has taught him the technical background for all the caregiving he already had done with Laurel.

“I look back now and think, oh, this is why we did this and this how we approached things during her care. My schooling has lent a real clarity, I guess, to my caregiving,” he said. “I really have a heart for it even more than I thought I would.”

Joy Anderson Barrett agreed it’s the right path for him. “He’s a natural-born caregiver,” she said.

Going back to school came with plenty of challenges, though.

“I hadn’t been a student really since high school,” Barrett said. “My old brain doesn’t keep stuff in it the way it used to, as a young person. So it’s been a lot of work, but I’ve really enjoyed very much the learning process. In nursing we say we’re lifelong learners because nursing just changes all the time.”

Barrett isn’t quite sure of the next step. For now, he’s savoring graduation.

“I don’t know what’s out there for me, but I know there’s a place for me to maximize what I’ve gone through, and to now use my nursing degree to help other people,” he said. “It’s not the course I thought my life would take, but it’s very good. It’s very good.”

Information from: St. Cloud Times, http://www.sctimes.com

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