1. Ferrell, Betty PhD, FAAN, FPCN

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Living amidst a pandemic over the past few months has reminded me of 2 concepts central to the practice of palliative nursing-compassion and calling. I have witnessed these characteristics in nurses engaged in care of the seriously ill and dying, nurses who have risen to new levels of professionalism to support those who are dying in the face of this pandemic. I was also reminded of these words, compassion and calling, when I recently received emails from 2 Hospice and Palliative Nursing Association members.


The first concept, calling, was shared with me by Patricia Swanson, Administrator of Kittson County Hospice in Hallock, Minnesota. I had met Patricia at a conference years ago and learned of her efforts to start a totally volunteer hospice program in her community. Patricia shared how she listened closely to "the heart" of the people in her community and spent years planning to then launch in 1984 a nonprofit volunteer hospice program. This program includes nurses, social workers, nursing assistants, and music and massage therapists and has comfort care rooms in a local nursing home. Patricia describes their hospice program as "gold standard," achieving the highest level of care possible. Patricia and her hospice community are an example of calling-knowing what needs to be done and listening to that inner voice that will guide you. With one dedicated nurse with a calling, a community is served.


The second concept, compassion, came to my mind when I received a message from Elizabeth McLaughlin, a recently retired nurse in New York. She had been a nurse for 43 years, with most of those years in the ICU setting and also in a small hospice inpatient unit, the Good Shepherd in Port Jefferson, New York. Elizabeth shared feeling torn between wanting to enjoy her retirement time with family and also intensely feeling the call to return to her nursing practice to help out her very overwhelmed state as the COVID cases reached enormous levels. She chose to return to her work in hospice and shared that "nursing is a part of my being." She returned to her work of compassionate care-being with patients who were facing death without family available, managing their symptoms, providing calm, and being present. Her message resonated with me as I also began my career 43 years ago. I recall my first few weeks at the bedside, as I was feeling so uncertain about my ability to be a nurse, still terrified every shift that I would make a medication error or miss an important sign of patient distress. And then one evening, I stood in the dark with my first patient who was near death and time stood still. I knew I had found my calling.


Patricia and Elizabeth are the reasons that, every year, the American public rates nurses as the most trusted profession in society. They have listened to their call, and they exist to serve. Their daily work is guided by listening closely to hear the need and then responding, even in the midst of a pandemic.


Dale Larson wrote in his book, The Helpers Journey,1 that "when we are able to confront and accept loss and the impermanence of life, our natural empathy can transform into a deep sense of compassion, binding us in a helping and healing way with the suffering of others." Dale must have known nurses like Patricia and Elizabeth, who both shared with me their choice of palliative nursing as their calling and their dedication to compassionate caring.


These times in a pandemic are incredibly busy ones, but also at times, the reduced pace of life offers us time for reflection. When did you hear your calling as a nurse? And as a palliative care nurse? Another important question is: what are you doing now to sustain your precious self? As Buddha wrote, "If your compassion does not include yourself, it is incomplete."


As a community of palliative care nurses, now is the time to hold tightly to each other, to care for ourselves, and to relish in the enormous privilege we have to be palliative care nurses.


Betty Ferrell, PhD, FAAN, FPCN




The author has no conflicts of interest to disclose




1. Larson DG. The Helper's Journey, Empathy, Compassion and the Challenge of Caring. 2nd ed. Champaign, IL: Research Press Publishing; 2020. [Context Link]