Cathy Burdick’s path to nursing went through the zoo. Her high school science teacher recommended her for a position at Turtle Back Zoo in West Orange, New Jersey. “I was a zookeeper for eight years and I loved it,” Burdick recalled. “I loved taking care of animals, but as I got older I realized I couldn’t make a living. So I went to nursing school and fell in love with nursing.”
Her natural caretaking instinct transferred easily from animals to humans. For a while Burdick worked in a Texas hospital where patients of all ages were in rooms on the same halls, much like a family medical practice but throughout an entire hospital. “It kept me challenged,” Burdick recalled, “because I had a variety of patients.” That kind of practice prepared her well for working as a visiting nurse for the Society.
By 2004, Burdick had moved to Washington State and was working in a hospital that served many military families. “They told me about the Society so I went to the Everett office and met with [then-director] Andy Leech and asked why NMCRS Everett didn’t have a visiting nurse.” So Leech hired her to work with both traditional and combat casualty assistance clients.
While the pace of working as a visiting nurse may be a bit more relaxed than a hospital shift, home visits can be just as intense. “We’re helping families at tough times in their lives,” Burdick said, “and they’re so appreciative when you do anything for them. They’re the most courteous people.”
Burdick spends about half her time seeing moms and newborns, where she often provides guidance on breastfeeding, weighs babies to make sure they’re growing well, and offers other helpful tips to often anxious first-time parents. “I’m the replacement support person for a while,” she said. “Sometimes there’s no one else there to help them figure out how to bathe the baby or clean the umbilical cord.”
Her other clients, combat-injured Sailors and Marines, are facing a different kind of life transition. “Some of them come home and discover the doorways in their houses aren’t wide enough for their wheelchairs, or they can’t get in the house.” Burdick admires the built-in support system she taps into to help clients. “If we talk to some of the Marines around here, they’re happy to go build a ramp. If someone needs something, they help him or her out.”
Sometimes clients’ needs are less tangible. “They will call and say they’re not in a good mood, and ask if I can talk,” Burdick said. “I let them vent and they feel better. Half the guys aren’t married and it’s difficult being a single guy at home with medical problems and no one to talk to. I hook them up with guys in the area who have common interests. They need camaraderie.” One of her clients is a quadriplegic veteran who competes in a wheelchair rugby league and is trying out for the U.S. team, and he welcomes other wheelchair athletes. Another client volunteers with Project Healing Waters Fly Fishing, which takes combat-injured vets fishing for free.
Burdick provides support to her clients through meetings over coffee or breakfast, phone calls, emails, and text messages, depending on where they are and how they’re doing. She travels regularly throughout Washington, Oregon, Idaho, and Texas. While she works hard to connect clients with resources for veterans, which sometimes include home renovations, or even free cars or houses, Burdick is often frustrated by the limitations of what she can do.
“But I can’t imagine doing anything else,” Burdick said. “I love my clients and their families. When they say, ‘thank you’ or ‘you made my day’ or ‘thanks for talking to my mom’ or when I get a big hug from someone—that’s all I need.”