A Hospice Nurse’s Path to Personal and Professional Fulfillment: Stories from VITAS Healthcare
This year, National Nurses Week (typically celebrated from May 6 to 12) extended into a month-long celebration, with America’s most honest profession being honored all through May. National Nurses Month provides the chance to recognize the countless sacrifices made by these outstanding individuals; however, it is also a much-needed opportunity for nurses themselves to look within and reaffirm the very reasons they chose to enter this selfless profession. At VITAS Healthcare, where I serve as the head of human resources, I’ve had the pleasure of interacting directly with many of our nurses. Each one may be driven by totally unique motivations, but over time I’ve found there are certain key reasons nurses opt to pursue a career in end-of-life care:
- The ability to make a difference in the lives of patients and their families when they need it most
- The opportunity to work with a team of experts who are all committed to fulfilling a crucial role in society by providing patients with high-quality end-of-life care that addresses physical, emotional, and spiritual needs
- The upward mobility the career offers, from internal promotions to a variety of professional training programs
An Extension of the Family
All nurses strive to make a positive impact on the lives of their patients; however, as end-of-life care providers, hospice nurses have the unique opportunity to support patients through especially trying situations, becoming an extension of their family in the process. More than a day-to-day caretaker, hospice nurses act as emotional, physical, and spiritual advisors, working to address patients’ holistic needs.
This can be challenging given the sensitive nature of the work and the complex family dynamics encountered along the way. However, hospice nurses find a way, leveraging best-in-class medical expertise and selfless dedication to make patients’ final days as comfortable as possible, while ensuring their loved ones have the support they need as they enter the grieving process.
Each year, VITAS nurses provide highly personalized care to more than 87,000 patients nearing the end of their lives. Yanet, a Florida-based registered nurse, is just one of many great examples of how VITAS nurses give each patient special care and attention to make their days brighter.
Recently, Yanet cared for “Gloria” (all patient names in this article have been changed to preserve the privacy of the families), a 95-year-old woman in critical condition. Yanet would often sit with Gloria and hold her hands as they spoke about family and life. These daily conversations would bring Gloria joy, and would also give Yanet context to better support the family, including her four daughters, as they came to terms with Gloria’s declining health.
All members of the family coped with Gloria’s condition in dramatically different ways–some keeping their distance, others taking the time to get to know Yanet and her team. However, following Gloria’s passing, her daughter Debra spoke for the entire family when she referred to Yanet as “an angel, a counselor, a referee and a priest to our family.”
While serving as a beacon of light during a family’s most trying time is a powerful motivator, hospice nurses are further bolstered by the support of a team of experts wholly dedicated to providing end-of-life care that fulfills patients’ wishes. As the administrators of care, nurses leverage their personal connection to the patient to guide physicians, social workers, chaplains, aides, volunteers and bereavement specialists as they work to develop a unified care plan that addresses the full picture.
Erika, a VITAS registered nurse, is one such nurse drawn to hospice by the opportunity to fulfill a critical leadership role. The head of her interdisciplinary team, Erika goes far beyond the day-to-day responsibilities typically fulfilled by nurses across other specialties. These include closely monitoring the mental and physical state of patients and working closely with the various members of her team as conditions evolve. For example, she collaborates with the physician to alter the care strategy when a patient’s condition worsens, or she calls on the social worker and/or chaplain when the family is having difficulty coping with their loved one’s prognosis. After one of her patients has passed, she engages the bereavement specialist to help their loved ones enter the next chapter of their lives. No matter what the situation may be, Erika always has a team she can rely on and learn from.
“Right now, we’re a team of 16 strong, professional, compassionate, and dedicated end–of–life care professionals,” Erika says. “We are very united. It doesn’t matter what one needs, we’re all there for each other.”
The growth and opportunities available within hospice organizations, especially VITAS, are another major draw for nurses.
At VITAS, we strive to bolster our nurses’ highly unique skill sets—combining superior clinical knowledge and interpersonal skills—through ample professional development opportunities. We’ve found this focus on continued education not only empowers nursing staff to provide even better care to patients, but also prepares them to eventually serve as empathic leaders within our organization.
Through VITAS’ robust resources for professional development, dedicated career paths and ongoing operational feedback system that identifies new opportunities for nurses from within the organization, our nurses are able to find their path and excel. We also offer tuition reimbursement and nurture a culture of promoting from within. For instance, starting as a hospice aide can lead to roles as licensed practical nurse, registered nurse, admissions manager, team manager, patient care administrator, general manager and executive management positions.
Karen, for example, joined VITAS in 1993 as a team manager and shined in her role. Before long, she was promoted to patient care administrator and then senior director of compliance. Today, she is VITAS’ senior vice president and chief nursing officer, providing leadership to the company’s clinical compliance operations.
Nursing is an incredibly fulfilling profession, and, when combined with end-of-life care, it brings an even higher level of gratification. “There’s something sacred about being able to participate in that moment at the end of life…it’s an unconditional trust that you will not find anywhere else,” says Erika (mentioned earlier).
Being able to make a positive impact on families and their loved ones at the end of their lives is a continuous gift that hospice nurses provide to society. Through advocacy and leading by example, hospice nurses demonstrate every day what compassionate care means. Our VITAS nurses’ selflessness, compassion and commitment make it possible to honor countless individuals’ final wishes. We appreciate, honor, and value our nurses this month and every other month of the year.