National Nurses Week, May 6 to 12, is an opportunity to recognize and honor the incredible contributions and sacrifices made by nurses. For nursing staff members, the week often serves as an opportunity to reaffirm their personal motivations for entering this deeply fulfilling career path — a profession that allows them to have a positive effect on the lives of countless people each and every day.

As the head of human resources for VITAS, I have the distinct opportunity to hear directly from many of our nurses. Although they each have unique motivations, I’ve found key differentiators that attract nurses to the field of hospice: 

  • The ability to make a difference for patients and their families at a time when they need it most;
  • The chance to collaborate with a team of experts to fulfill a critical role in society and provide patients with the physical, emotional and spiritual care they need near the end of life; and
  • Access to ample opportunities for professional growth, including training programs and internal promotions.

Making a difference

Regardless of their area of focus, all nurses leave lasting impressions on the residents or patients for whom they care. Hospice nurses make a difference for patients and their families at an especially challenging time. Tasked with providing the best quality of life for individuals and their families, hospice nurses consistently go beyond pain relief and symptom management to form tight-knit bonds with patients, often becoming an extension of the family itself.

This process can be challenging, involving nurses in complex family dynamics made even more intense by a patient’s advanced illness and declining health. Yet hospice nurses persevere, using empathy and selfless commitment to navigate turbulent waters and provide patients and their loved ones with meaningful time together.

At VITAS, we see the benefits of this very personal approach every day across more than 87,000 patients a year. Yanet, a Florida-based registered nurse, is a wonderful example of the VITAS approach to care. No matter how challenging a case may be, Yanet has come to be known for the tireless dedication and warmth she brings to patients’ homes.

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. Over the course of their relationship, Yanet worked to ensure that Gloria was comfortable while Yanet simultaneously managed the expectations of Gloria’s four daughters, each of whom was coping with her mother’s illness in her own way.

Yanet recalls sitting with Gloria and gently holding her hand as they talked about life and family. These intimate conversations gave Yanet the necessary context to counsel and support the family through an extremely trying time. Following Gloria’s death, her daughter Debra fondly recalled Yanet’s significant and positive effect, going beyond medical care and serving as “an angel, a counselor, a referee and a priest to our family.”

These opportunities drive nurses such as Yanet, motivating them to make a difference for families experiencing deeply painful circumstances and inspiring them to continue dedicating their lives to help others.

A focus on teamwork

Beyond personal connections, hospice nurses around the world also are fueled by the knowledge that they fulfill critical leadership roles within teams of experts. Each hospice team is wholly dedicated to providing end-of-life care that honors patients’ decisions and supports the whole person physically, emotionally and spiritually.

As the administrators of care, hospice nurses typically are afforded a much higher level of autonomy than their counterparts in hospitals or private practices. In fact, hospice nurses serve as the quarterbacks of patient care strategies, making critical decisions regarding patient care and ensuring all other team members are aligned and working toward a joint goal.

Another nurse who comes to mind is Erika, a VITAS registered nurse who was drawn to hospice by the chance to serve on an interdisciplinary team. She valued the opportunity to learn from and lean on a hospice physician, social worker, chaplain, aide, volunteer and bereavement specialist on a singular, united team.

“Right now, we’re a team of 16 strong, professional, compassionate, 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.”

As the team’s central figure, Erika’s role goes far beyond the traditional day-to-day responsibilities nurses typically fulfill. Based on emotional and physical evaluations of her patients, Erika provides constant guidance and direction to her team, tapping specific individuals when their skills are required. When family members are having a difficult time coming to terms with their loved one’s prognosis, she calls in the team chaplain and the social worker for spiritual and emotional support. When a patient’s symptoms have changed or worsened, she works closely with the physician on an updated care plan and then leverages her personal connections with the family to help them accept the situation and chart a course of action to fulfill their loved ones’ wishes. 

For Erika and countless other nurses, a career in hospice presents the opportunity to be a leader and challenge herself while continuing to have the “one-on-one time, that personal time with the patient” that initially drew her to nursing.

A career for growth

The allure of a nursing career in end-of-life care is rounded out by the ample opportunities available at hospice-focused organizations.

Understanding just how rare a hospice nurse’s skillset can be — including superior clinical knowledge and interpersonal skills — VITAS’ philosophy is built on a commitment to nurturing talent through extensive professional development. We aim to empower nurses to do what is needed for patients and offer leadership opportunities not often found in other medical specialties.

Nurses have access to resources for growth and development, dedicated career paths and ongoing operational feedback systems that identify new needs and opportunities for nurses. Combined with tuition reimbursement and a culture of promoting from within, a typical growth path for 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 if they choose to continue employment. Several members of the VITAS national and regional management and executive teams, in fact, launched their careers as nurses, including Peggy Pettit.

Peggy joined VITAS in 1983 as a home care nurse and moved up the ranks to patient care administrator, general manager and her current position as executive vice president. Likewise, Karen Peterson joined VITAS in 1993 as a team manager, and she served as patient care administrator and senior director of compliance before her promotion to vice president and chief nursing officer.

Nursing is a very rewarding profession. Hospice nurses typically describe 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,” Erika (mentioned earlier) says.

A hospice nurse’s ability to make a positive difference for families is a never-ending gift to society. Many people are not familiar with hospice or the level of support we offer to caregivers and their loved ones. By example and advocacy, hospice nurses demonstrate what compassionate care means to individual families and entire communities. As word spreads and their actions are noticed, more patients are able to receive end-of-life support during their times of need. Hospice nurses routinely go above and beyond to honor and respond their patients’ last wishes — one of the greatest gifts that can be offered to a human being.

We are very proud of our nurses. We value, appreciate and honor them this and every other week of the year and are pleased that we and other organizations have a special opportunity to recognize and honor the incredible contributions and sacrifices they make all year.