Near suicide, nursing executive found reason to live

Diagnosed at age 21 with temporomandibular joint disorder, or TMJ — she’d awaken with her jaw locked open — Debra Fox took a journey through hell as doctors tried to fix hinges that connected her jaw to the temporal bones of her skull.

As strange as it might seem, if we ultimately benefit from what she learned during her misery, she will, in her mind at least, break into a smile wide enough to radiate her satisfaction from one end of the Strip to the other.

No longer is this 57-year-old chief nursing officer of University Medical Center concerned with the 48 crippling and paralyzing surgeries on her jaw that have made her unable to smile — or eat and talk normally.

Nor does she fixate on the pain that will always remain. Fortunately for her, it’s no longer of the excruciating variety that drove her from nursing for a decade, into bankruptcy and nearly to suicide.

This married executive who came to UMC from Colorado less than two years ago now focuses on ensuring that the nursing delivered at UMC always is compassionate and caring.

“I’ve personally experienced both the best and the worst in nursing care,” she said recently. “I made a vow that if I survived and recaptured my career I would provide a work environment where nurses could engage with patients in a therapeutic way, where correct behaviors were role-modeled.

“Often, the difference between death and survival in a health crisis is how a caregiver interacts with you, how much confidence he or she showed in your ability to survive and thrive.”

At UMC, she never wants to see what she saw as a patient — too many nurses dispassionately disengaged, more interested in paychecks than patients.

“If patients come away from UMC saying all our caregivers are compassionate and caring, then I’ll be happy,” she said.

There wasn’t a smile on her face as she sat across from me in her office and described her vision for the future, but I could hear the smile in her voice.

To help realize her vision, Fox has UMC trying to earn Magnet recognition, the highest status in nursing, by 2020.

That she can now talk about the future wasn’t a given 30 years ago. In a decade, she underwent surgeries by the best oral surgeons in North Dakota, Colorado and Virginia. Some of her ribs were unsuccessfully used in an attempt to rebuild her jaw. She suffered permanent nerve damage. Dentures replaced teeth.

All the stress caused her to suffer a stroke. She had to learn how to talk again.

For a long time, her jaw was wired shut, and she was put on a feeding tube. Her pain became so severe that an oncologist put her on a pain medicine regimen similar to what she’s on today.

She once planned her suicide with an assortment of pills. But just before she took them, she said she saw her father, a Vietnam veteran who died of Agent Orange, in a dream.

“He told me there was still life to live. He was right,” she said. “I got better enough to work again.”

Paul Harasim’s column runs Sunday and Tuesday in the Nevada section and Monday in the Health section. Contact him at or 702-387-5273. Follow @paulharasim on Twitter.

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