“Lieutenant Dela Pena! Lieutenant Dela Pena! I have my legs,” yelled a young officer from down the hallway. Army ROTC Nurse Arlyn Medendorp (Dela Pena) looked for the man who was shouting her name. There stood a soldier she once knew, one she had cared for. But there was something different about him now. No longer in a wheelchair, he was instead standing on his own.
“He ran across the room and wrapped his arms around me,” Arlyn said. “I couldn’t stop the tears.”
Arlyn had spent nearly one month caring for this young infantry officer at the Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington, D.C. after he returned from war. It was 2008—the height of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan—and he had just undergone a bilateral above the knee amputation after surviving an explosion. Though she was new to her nursing career, she understood the importance of providing her patient with holistic care so that he could heal not only his body but also his mind.
While working the night shift, she spent time getting to know him.
“In the beginning he had a lot of anger,” she said. “So much of his injury was psychological. Without his legs, he didn’t feel like a man anymore. In addition to coming to terms with no longer being able to walk on his own again, his wife was expecting their first child. And so I tried to encourage him, talking with him about all of the possibilities in life for him and his family.”
Nearly a year and a half later, a different man stood before her.
“Seeing him run across that room with his prosthetic legs was life-changing,” she said. “It was in that moment that I realized I was truly meant to be a nurse.”
Over the next seven years, Arlyn continued caring for soldiers returning from war. She found her work rewarding, demanding, and inspiring.
“I think the hardest part was being there when a soldier would wake up from surgery not knowing where she/he was,” she explained. “It was our job to brief them. We had to tell them where they were, what happened to them, and counsel them through it. For many patients, they had no idea their limbs were missing until the moment they woke up.”
In 2011, after nearly four years at Walter Reed, Arlyn was deployed to Baghdad, Iraq, for a six-month tour of duty. She worked in the Intensive Care Unit of the 86th Combat Support Hospital providing care to U.S. and coalition forces, detainees, and civilians requiring surgical, adult, and pediatric intensive care and post-anesthesia care.
“We experienced multiple days of mass casualty events and were bombed regularly,” she said. “We would hear a siren, then ‘Incoming! Incoming! Incoming!’ just before the building would start to shake and we knew we had to take cover. It was a very arduous and scary time.”
While in Iraq, Arlyn cared for patients recovering from injuries sustained from IED explosions, including abdominal trauma, projectile wounds, multiple fractures, traumatic brain injuries, burn injuries, and spinal fusions. She helped with medical evacuation for critically ill patients who needed to fly back to the United States.
In addition to complex care plans, the hospital setting, a mobile unit, also provided it’s own set of challenges. Arlyn and her team were responsible for keeping the shelves stocked with necessary supplies.
“We did not have a supply tech tracking inventory and stocking shelves like a regular stateside hospital, so we had to be very cognizant of the supplies we had on hand and do the best we could with that to care for our patients,” Arlyn explained.
Not all the moments were challenging; many were celebratory to boost morale and keep spirits up. She helped plan events and celebrations, such as Nurses’ Week, birthdays, and movie nights. For Asian Heritage month, Arlyn helped coordinate a fashion show, an informational poster session and a traditional tribal dance. They even roasted a pig!
“One of the biggest ways to build resiliency and focus on team-building is to bring people together to celebrate,” Arlyn explained.
In 2015, Arlyn shifted her focus again to help a new population: Army ROTC Nurse Cadets. She accepted a leadership role as an ROTC Brigade Nurse Counselor serving 13 nursing programs in four Western states.
“My biggest goal in life is to help and positively impact the greatest amount of people,” Arlyn said about transitioning to her new position.
In this role, she uses her personal experience to help students, providing counseling, encouragement, and support. She mentors students and helps to prepare them for what’s next in their careers.
“Army nursing is tough,” she said. “But the Army and Nursing are both team sports. I get to share with these students my experience and teach them that when times get tough, they need to look to their left and their right for support.”
Arlyn graduated from Washington State University College of Nursing with her Bachelor of Science in Nursing degree in 2007. She obtained her Master of Science in Nursing in 2013 and she plans to further her education and earn her Doctor of Nursing Practice degree and become a nurse anesthetist.