A Chapel Hill woman has been both nurse and patient at Vanderbilt's renal transplant/dialysis unit.
For 10 years Janice Dalton worked as a renal transplant/dialysis nurse at Vanderbilt University Medical Center. In 2003, at the age of 54, she was diagnosed with renal failure, placed on dialysis and told she would need a kidney transplant.
The tables had turned. Despite years taking care of patients, listening to their concerns and helping calm their fears, she was at a loss as to how to deal with her own illness.
"It was the hardest thing for me to walk up on that floor, the day I was scheduled to start dialysis," said Dalton. "Thankfully, one of the dialysis nurses came to the door, put her arms around me and took me into the unit.
"There's a lot you experience in 10 years working on one unit. And until I sat in that chair myself, I really didn't know how my patients felt. It was life-changing."
Dalton came to Vanderbilt in 1985 as an LPN (licensed practical nurse) with gynecological, ophthalmological and vascular services on 10 North. She returned to school and earned her RN in 1991. She worked in cardiac recovery and home health before finding her niche in renal transplant in 1993.
"I feel that God put me where I needed to be on the renal transplant unit and in dialysis," said Dalton of her work assignments. "Each step of the way I was learning and benefiting from that knowledge. While I was learning and gaining a better understanding of the dialysis/renal transplant world, it was really preparing me for my own journey."
Soon after Dalton's diagnosis, she found she could no longer work as a staff nurse while completing her three-day-a-week dialysis regime. But she also couldn't just "let life pass her by" while waiting on a kidney.
During her scheduled dialysis treatments she would talk about the importance of staying in tune with your body; she spoke about the advantages of learning about the dialysis machine, its alarms, and various settings; she developed a support network where patients discussed the challenges associated with dialysis; and she gathered teaching materials on various topics for patients.
"It was great because I found another avenue to help patients and in the end I benefited too," she said. "It was my mindset that I had to accept this diagnosis and that it was NOT the end of the world. My life had been turned around, but I wasn't going to let it stop me. I wanted to be encouraging to others.
"I told myself, 'There are still things I can do while I am sitting in this (dialysis) chair.' And I did."
It is just that attitude, faith and support from her co-workers on 10 South that the now 60-year-old Dalton said helped her through her journey. She also encouraged others to adhere to a positive attitude as well.
"I learned so much during all of this," she said. "I learned that I was not immune to anything, and, more importantly, it doesn't matter what you are going through, the attitude you have about it will make all the difference.
"We all have our pity parties, but you just can't stay in it."
Dalton's prognosis is excellent, according to her transplant nephrologist J. Harold Helderman M.D., chief of Renal Transplant and medical director of the Vanderbilt Transplant Center.
Calling her "a blessing to take care of," Helderman is very proud of the way his nurse, now patient, has continued her work.
Although it is uncommon for caregivers to become the patient in the renal area, Helderman said the insight these situations bring to physicians and staff is immeasurable.
"We do the best we can to take care of patients, [but] because we can't put ourselves in their position, we can only imagine what it is like," he said. "Janice is able to better understand what it is truly like being a dialysis/transplant patient and she can help others in ways we can't."
After six-and-a-half years on dialysis, Dalton received a kidney transplant in July, 2010.
"My transplant didn't give me a second chance at life," smiled Dalton. "It gave me a third chance. All that time I spent on dialysis, that was my second lease on life.
"God is leaving me here for a reason -- I've got encouraging work to do!"
This story was first published in Vanderbilt University's "House Organ" this month.