IU Health Simon Cancer Center
Nurse’s Empathy: “My Last Name Was ‘Lein’ and I Was Fat.”
She was only in Kindergarten. She barely knew how to write her last name but she knew enough to know that “Lein” sounded just like “Lean.” She knew enough to know that the stones thrown at her may not break her bones, but the words could harm her.
“I would be walking to school and people would drive by and beep. They’d call me ‘fatty.’ I was the tallest and the biggest in my class. It was somewhat of an oddity back then because in the 60s people were thin and weight conscious,” said Gerri (Lein) Wensloff. It was a time in history when President John F. Kennedy formed The Council on Fitness, Sports and Nutrition (PCFSN) and students lined up – smallest to tallest – to get weighed and measured in front of their peers. The focus was on improving health, but for someone like Wensloff it was another risk at peer humiliation.
“Thankfully my mother was my best friend. She would talk to me and tell me not to let other people make me feel bad,” said Wensloff. Jeanette Lein died in 1996 – shortly after attending her daughter’s graduation from nursing school. In addition to her mom’s encouragement, Wensloff says her strong belief that God was guiding her to and through this journey helped her to endure the hurt and pain.
Wensloff doesn’t remember exactly when she decided she wanted to become a nurse but she does remember when her roots were planted as a caregiver. It was when she was in Kindergarten and she recognized the difference between people who made others feel good and people who made others feel bad.
“When I was young and was picked on and bullied, I felt bad about myself. I didn’t want other people to feel like I felt,” said Wensloff. “It was important to me as I grew and gained confidence to recognize and practice that there’s a right way and a wrong way to treat others. I was raised by the golden rule - treat others as you would want them to treat you.”
As the sadness and depression mounted towards the beginning of high school, Wensloff’s parents researched weight loss procedures and programs and determined their daughter was a candidate for an intestinal bypass. At the age of 14 she was one of the youngest patients to undergo the procedure.
“Back in the 70s this was one of the first types of surgeries for weight loss. The surgery involved bypassing 17 feet of the small intestine where nutrients are absorbed - the theory being, if you aren’t absorbing nutrients you won’t gain weight. This surgery is no longer performed due to the associated risks.”
A native of Chicago, Wensloff moved to Indianapolis in 1987 when her former husband was transferred to Indiana for employment. Together they had two daughters. It was eight years later when Wensloff, then 32, found herself the divorced mother of two, that she opted to enroll in nursing school. She drove a school bus and worked at a grocery deli to offset tuition and completed her nursing degree at the age of 37.
Over the years, side effects of the bypass intensified – gastrointestinal issues, chronic diarrhea – to the point that Wensloff was basically malnourished. Eventually her liver began to fail. In early 2014, she was working at IU Health and turned to one of the doctors in her practice – hematology/oncology – for guidance.
Dr. Attaya Suvannasankha referred Wensloff to Dr. Paul Kwo who specializes in infectious liver disease. Wensloff was diagnosed with non-alcoholic steatoric hepatitis (NASH).
“I was very fatigued and intolerant of the cold. I was still able to work full time, but I knew something wasn’t right,” said Wensloff. Scans confirmed her liver was failing and Wensloff was placed on a transplant list in May of 2014. On Oct. 25, 2014 she received a liver transplant.
The recovery lasted longer than anticipated in part due to complications from her earlier weight loss surgery. During that time she attended weight loss support groups and encouraged women to focus on their inner beauty.
“I reconciled myself that it’s not what you look like on the outside but how you feel on the inside that you should be proud of,” said Wensloff, who is now married to David Wensloff. Together they have a blended family of five daughters.
“In the support group I heard these stories from young girls struggling with being overweight who would go to the grocery store at midnight on Sunday when no one was there because they were ashamed to have anyone see them – especially buying food. It is heartbreaking to hear because I so empathized with them but encouraged them to focus on their inner beauty and not be ashamed of who they are.”
That empathy transcends the patients in her care.
“As an oncology nurse for over 22 years, I have had the privilege to form relationships with patients and their families. They come to trust that I will help them with their symptoms and concerns. Whether it’s comforting someone who is nauseous, or talking to them when they are sad or in pain, my job is to solve problems and make things better,” said Wensloff.
She’s also a fierce advocate. When a patient needs another voice or someone to wheel them from one appointment to the next, Wensloff is there to help.
“As a patient myself, I know what it takes, what it feels like to struggle and I want to use every opportunity I can to make things just a little better.”
-- By T.J. Banes, Associate Senior Journalist at IU Health.
Reach Banes via email at T.J. Banes or on Twitter @tjbanes.