Linda’s Journey, Part Three: Battling the emotional scars [GRAPHIC CONTENT]

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While going through numerous surgeries to rebuild her nose, Linda Hershey worked at her job at Lancaster Regional Medical Center. Amid the many challenging months of physical suffering and psychological adjustment to her changing face, Hershey slipped into depression.

Story and photos by Algerina Perna. Warning: Series contains graphic content.

Even while undergoing a series of surgeries to reconstruct her nose, which had been removed due to cancer, Linda Hershey continued to work as an operating room nurse at Lancaster Regional Medical Center in Pennsylvania. She often worked 10-hour days, lifting patients, wheeling hospital beds and performing other strenuous work.

Then she would go home and collapse onto her bed, exhausted. To make matters worse, since nose reconstruction began at Johns Hopkins Hospital, she battled daily headaches that ranged from mild to excruciating.

Amid the years of physical suffering and psychological adjustment to her changing face, Hershey slipped into depression.

She tried to keep her sadness hidden. “My depression and my days that I’m really down in the mouth, I keep it to myself … nobody wants to listen to it. It’s something I have to deal with on my own,” she says. Though she describes herself as an optimist under normal circumstances, she acknowledges that the headaches “psychologically bring me down. When you have them all the time, they really do a job on your psyche.”

Since 2007, Hershey has undergone a succession of major and minor surgeries — some with painful recoveries — and has endured unexpected setbacks. Skin grafts and blood vessels were taken from her right forearm to provide a foundation of new tissue for the nose. Problems arose after the next major surgery, when cartilage from her rib cage failed as a support structure for the nose. She developed blood clots in her lungs, and the rib cartilage failure compelled doctors to take bone from her skull.

During the years-long ordeal, Hershey’s daughter, Tami Layman, has only seen her mother cry once. “That lasted 20 minutes. She shook it off.”

Layman, who witnessed Hershey’s constant headache pain and saw her spirits decline, urged her mother to take medication for depression. She recalls telling Hershey when she suffered intense pain from the forearm graft, “There’s no one in God’s green earth that would expect you to go through this without some level of depression. There’s no shame in being on an anti-depressant.”

Hershey relented and began taking Zoloft in 2008. A couple of months later, she stopped using it. “I don’t know I benefited enough from it that I needed to stay on it,” she says.

Hershey attributed the depression to her age, as well as having been widowed since 1999 and living alone. Besides Layman, Hershey has one son, Scott Rogers, 44, who moved back to the Lancaster area from California a few years ago.

Hershey faced other personal losses as well. Her brother died of rectal cancer in September 2008 at the age of 58, and her father passed away in mid-2009 at age 91 from a host of health problems. Her mother, a breast cancer survivor, moved to a nursing care facility after the death of Hershey’s father.

In her straightforward way, Hershey described her depression as “tolerable” and “appropriate” to the surgeries she has endured. Looking back to the most difficult periods, she says, “I had some depression but I am a survivor. I deal with it. … You give up or you handle it. And I don’t give up. You take what comes your way and you deal with it the best you know how.”

Dealing with the public’s reactions to her reconstituted nose has also proved painful.

For several months, she wore bandages to work and in public — first to cover the cavity where her nose had been, and then to cover the rough, bulbous graft that had not yet been sculpted into the shape of a nose. After several months’ hiatus, Hershey, an avid golfer whose condo is in the Hawk Valley Golf Club community, was able to resume playing, with or without bandages.

Yet even when her nose was covered, strangers stared. Or worse.

Hershey recalls one particularly embarrassing confrontation with a cashier at a Giant supermarket in Sinking Springs, Pa.: “She grabbed my face and she pulled me forward toward her and asked if she could pray for me, which she did [and] closed her eyes. The entire store was staring.

“When she was done, she said, ‘Amen.’ And she looked at me and [asked], ‘Did I feel anything while she was praying?’ I said, ‘Not really.’”

Hershey adds, “You run into all kinds of people. …Some are rude. Some are very pleasant. Some are very inquisitive. Children are the most pleasant to run into because they’re very sympathetic. … You almost want to just hug them all.”

You run into all kinds of people. …Some are rude. Some are very pleasant. Some are very inquisitive.”

In the summer of 2010, the tables were turned on Hershey, when she stopped at a flea market near her home. She saw an elderly man without a nose, and with several other marks on his face. Should she stop? Offer help? She concluded it was none of her business and continued on her way.

Yet she second-guessed herself. “You still think, ‘Is there anything I can do?’”

Managing the financial costs hasn’t been easy either. Hershey estimates she’s spent tens of thousands of dollars out-of-pocket for treatment. But her financial burden eased when she qualified for Medicare after turning 65 in November 2009.

Layman stayed with Hershey during the most difficult times, nights in the hospital room chair, and time at Hershey’s home in Denver, Pa., about 20 miles northeast of Lancaster.

Layman says her mother’s ordeal has brought them closer. With four children of her own, Layman didn’t have time to spend alone with her mother for years, until Hershey was diagnosed with cancer. “This has been a horrible, horrible thing for her to go through, but it’s been some of the nicest times to be with her,” Layman says.

Likewise, Hershey is grateful to her daughter, who lives three hours away in Woodstock, Va. “It’s been a real godsend to have her.”

Hershey’s medical ordeal has also strengthened the bonds with co-workers at the Lancaster medical center.

Nurses Prudence Martin and Sandy Gladfelter drove Hershey to almost every doctor’s appointment and hospital stay in Baltimore when Hershey couldn’t drive.

“I know she’s had her moments where she didn’t think she could go on. But just watching her and seeing how strong she was has just been so inspirational to me that I can’t help but admire her so very much,” Martin says.

Gladfelter, who is in charge of scheduling, said, “There’s never been that, ‘Woe is me. Why me?’ sentiment about her.” Gladfelter says Hershey’s work ethic is “the best. She’s totally dedicated to her job. … She has great empathy with the patients.”

For Hershey, the warm feelings are mutual: “The staff has helped me financially … emotionally … I couldn’t ask for better co-workers.”

Despite the silver lining of closer relationships, Hershey’s depression was understandable — even predictable. But in 2010 she had another blow: the recurrence of cancer.

Tomorrow: Linda Journey, Part Four: The long road ahead

To read Linda’s Journey, Part One: Confronting cancer click here

To read Linda’s Journey, Part Two: A doctor’s challenge click here

Timeline of Linda’s journey