Meet Kunga Yudron (Alexis LaBarge) Hospice Nurse

Alexis LaBarge (Kunga Yudron), in conversation with Ngejung Datso, our Off-Site Office Coordinator. Yudron was a resident of Gampo Abbey from 2018 to 2020.

Ngejung: Let’s start by learning a bit about your path into the Dharma and what inspired you to come to the Abbey for a residency.

Yudron: I went through a brutal divorce, it started in 2011, and by the end of that year, it had kind of brought me to my knees. I had two dear friends, one of which recommended When Things Fall Apart by Pema Chödrön. And the other friend gave me an audio series by a teacher named Adyashanti, and it was called The Heart of Awakened Relationship. Pema’s book and that series by Adyashanti redirected my heart space. Both of those books I really appreciated because they weren’t really religious. It was more like heart wisdom that one already knows, it’s just that we have to hear it. And the wisdom within both of those books really helped me get through the absolute worst period.

Looking back on it now, it was my ego. I mean, I still have ego, huge chunks of my ego were just falling apart and burning, and that was really painful.

There was a quote from Ani Pema’s book that I butcher every time I try to remember it, so I’m probably going to butcher it again. I wrote it with a magic marker and put it in my car and looked at it every day. And it was something to the effect of, only to the extent that we’re exposed to annihilation can that which is indestructible be found within us. And that was my mantra for something like five or six years

Only to the extent that we expose ourselves over and over to annihilation can that which is indestructible be found in us.

Pema Chödrön, When things Fall Apart, chapter 1

And so I kept trying to work through the pain and I just wasn’t healing. I quit hospital nursing and tried going back to school and remembered how hard school was for me. And I was like, what am I doing? I have a degree. So I tried travel nursing and that brought me to Colorado. That was in 2015, and I was still miserable. I was signed on to Pema Chödrön’s email list, and I’d gotten an email from them recently. I had in the back of my mind Shambhala, because I’d read about Shambhala centers in the back of one of her books. Maybe I’d already bought Sacred Path of the Warrior, so I was kind of familiar with Shambhala. I googled meditation retreats in Colorado, and Shambhala Mountain Center (now Drala Mountain Center) was the first one that popped up. And it just so happened they had a Retreat and Renewal program on my birthday weekend. It was right when I had a break in between nursing gigs, and so I went and learned how to meditate. That was in May of 2015. That was the first time I’d ever meditated. And I saw the Stupa and I cried, and the next day I asked if they had any paid positions, and they only had one. It was in the kitchen and I took it.

Working in the kitchen at that time was horrendous. I mean, Shambhala Mountain Center they were in full summertime swing with 400 people on the land and never enough kitchen staff. But I took it and it was a good experience. And then I got out of that as quickly as possible and moved into Housekeeping, which they called Drala, and I loved that. I spent two and a half years at Shambhala Mountain Center working, and I would take programs.

I went through the Shambhala levels ( the training program with a progression of courses) and I’d take the programs from amazing wisdom teachers, for free. And then I would process what I learned while I was scrubbing toilets. I was so thankful to not be in a job where I had to have a face on because I was a wreck. I just wanted to clean rooms, and clean toilets. That was also kind of ego melting, whatever career I thought I had that was bigger or greater than cleaning a toilet … Then by my last year at SMC, I had really done a lot of work and I felt ready to take a position where I could be more of a face for the center. And I was their Housing and Travel Coordinator.

I was still yearning … I didn’t really know anything about Buddhism. I was going through the levels in Shambhala ( the progressive path of training in Shambhala) and I was taking different classes, but I was recognizing how the ground of Trungpa’s teachings and Pema’s teachings was based in Buddhism. And I didn’t know anything about Buddhism. I was craving to meditate more and work less and practice more and learn more and study more. I feel like I’ve always had a nun’s heart, whether I’m in a robe or not. I’ve always connected with just the pure heart-mind of people and their pure intentions, without sounding too moral or something. That life has always called to me. I’m very speedy and very karma as you know, and just the opportunity to potentially slow down while studying and practicing was why I applied to Gampo Abbey. I applied and I got into their Dragon year which started in January 2018.

Ngejung: You’ve told us what you were doing before you came to the Abbey, so what are you doing now?

Yudron: I’ve gone back into what I used to do, but what’s so rich, I can’t think of a better word at the moment…it’s different after spending two and a half years at the Abbey. It was a real process coming back. Soon after I left the Abbey I came into Denver to stay with a friend who had a room available. Going from Gampo Abbey where there’s pristine wilderness and quiet, quiet, quiet and being in silence most of the day, to coming to a big city, it was like shell shock.

I’d say it’s kind of worn off now, but definitely, for the first year and a half after the Abbey, I was experiencing everything new, even listening to people talk. I would really listen to them. I would listen to the noises on a city street. In doing things that I used to do, like going back into the role of nursing, it was completely fresh. It was new for me. My mind had changed, right?

It’s like my mind has grown. It’s changed compared to what it was when I left nursing in 2015. I’m not working in the hospital, I’m working at a hospice, which is slower-paced. With my body aging, it’s almost too much for me now to work in a hospital with a high pace.

Going from Gampo Abbey where there’s pristine wilderness and quiet, quiet, quiet and being in silence most of the day, to coming to a big city, it was like shell shock.

Going from Gampo Abbey where there’s pristine wilderness and quiet, quiet, quiet and being in silence most of the day, to coming to a big city, it was like shell shock.

I was a Charge Nurse not because I’m an amazing nurse with lots of experience and education, but literally because the landscape had changed post-covid and a lot of older nurses left. It was new grads and then people like me. I had a little bit more experience than new grads, which put me in the Charge Nurse position and just increased my anxiety even more.

Registered Nurse new grads don’t get the experience of starting an IV (intravenous catheter) in school. And it is a skill they are expected to perform right off the block when they get their first job. We use IVs to deliver antibiotics and pain medications. It’s a must-have skill if one works in a hospital. While some people have remarked to me throughout my life that I have “manly veins” or “weight-lifter’s veins”, to a new nurse who needs to practice starting an IV, my veins are gorgeous.

But my practice was, if I could remember throughout my shift to breathe, just in the depths of my belly, slow, deep belly breathing, I felt like I was doing a really good job. And even remembering to slow down and just take a deep breath, is more than I had ever done before.

My mom is living with me now, and that’s actually fresh. Witnessing, bearing witness to all the patterns we hold with each other, in the things we say to each other and in the patterns in my mind of how I might typically respond to something she might say, and then not responding in the way that I used to. And that being fresh, trying to see my mom as a woman, as an older woman who is not my mother. I’m still speedy and very karma, but more patient, I have developed patience in small ways thanks to my time at the Abbey. And it comes out more in my ability to be present with people in a relationship and not jump to assume or judge.

Ngejung: Can you tell us more about your work as a hospice nurse and also about the hospice setting where you are working, which I understand is not in a hospital?

Yudron: Where I work now is a 24-bed acute care facility called The Denver Hospice. It is unique because most people, if they have their choice, would like to die at home in the company of family and friends and not in a hospital unit with bright lights and machines.

But sometimes people are too sick to die at home and too stable to stay at the hospital. One of the things I love about our facility is that we are non-profit and which means that we can take anybody. We offer hospice care to anybody, including the homeless. We are able to take patients that are high acuity, who are on ventilators or have tracheostomies, or who have lots of tubes and drains that would overwhelm family members. We also take children.

Last week I read a doctor’s note to the parent of a 21-year-old in the last days of their life, explaining to the parent that bringing their child to our facility allowed the parent to just be a parent, while our staff could provide the medical care.

Something beautiful that I experienced recently with a Hispanic patient who had passed. (Just after her death) her son invited all of their family members into the room, and 10 people encircled the patient and they spent eight hours telling stories of this woman whose body was no more. They were singing and telling jokes, with food and drink. It was like a celebration of that person’s life and we didn’t rush the family; we allowed them to honour this being. And at the end of it all, we offered her son an opportunity to ring the bell. When this bell is rung, every staff member stops what they are doing, and we honour in silence the life and the death of this loved one as they move on.

Often I feel like I am there more for the family members than I am for the patient. My patients are usually older and have suffered through their diseases for a long time. They are usually ready to go. It’s the family members and friends that are working with loss. Human life is so precious. And in an instant, it is no more. My first Yarne was on the Bardo teachings, and those teachings, as well as the next Yarne on the Six Paramitas, and the next one on the Wisdom Within Kleshas, really, everything I read, sat with, chewed on, and discussed at the Abbey I carry with me as a treasure box of tools that inform my moments. The title of Ani Pema’s new book, How We Live Is How We Die, sums it up, doesn’t it?