Death and dying has been a part of all of our lives. Whether it has been a loved one who has passed, a friend, or a patient, we have all experienced how difficult the dying process can be on us personally and on the family. Luckily there are nurses out there that have the strength to go through this process with us as a community day in and day out.
Maryellen Corliss is one of the hospice nursing allstars at Bayada Hospice in Norwich, Vermont. We asked Maryellen to describe her roles and her experiences as a Hospice RN throughout her career. Thankfully, Maryellen was more then happy to volunteer her time to put together this piece.
How did your career as a registered nurse find its way to hospice nursing?
I was in nursing school in 2002, when my mother’s cancer returned and treatment was no longer an option. It was then I was introduced to hospice, and was able to make my mother’s wish to die at home come true with the help of hospice and a wonderful hospice nurse named Lynn. She was funny, caring, dedicated, and advocated for mom and us. I knew after that wonderful experience, that hospice was my calling.
What exactly are your responsibilities as a hospice nurse?
As a hospice nurse, our major responsibility is that the patient and family experience a safe and comfortable death. We visit patients in their homes, in assisted living facilities and nursing homes. It includes physical assessments, monitoring pain, teaching patients, families and facility staff about end of life care, symptom management, what to expect, who to call, how to handle crisis, etc.
What are the challenges of being a hospice nurse that a person can expect to find when pursuing this career field?
Hospice is very challenging at times, but I truly believe it is the most rewarding thing I could ever do as a nurse. Death is never easy, whether the patient is young or old. While we are there to support and guide patients and families in symptom control, at times family dynamics are the biggest challenge of all. Managing physical symptoms may seem hard, however I truly believe helping to support family dynamics is the most difficult. Our social workers and spiritual counselors play such a vital part in this, but many times because we are in the home more frequently we have to handle some difficult situations involving the patient and estranged family and friends. It’s difficult at times, but again, very rewarding.
Can you describe what it is about this job that is fulfilling to you, and why?
All of us are going to die. It’s a fact none of us can avoid. If I can help patients and families through this time, bring them peace and comfort at end of life, well, that’s what it’s all about.
What are some qualifications a RN should have before pursuing work as a hospice nurse?
To enter hospice, a nurse should definitely have at least 1 or 2 years of medical-surgical nursing in their back ground. It’s helpful because it gives you a foundation to build on regarding pain and symptom management. Without that, it can be a struggle to understand and navigate the sometimes complicated medication regimens that we come across in hospice. Outside of that, I fell they need the passion or desire to care for patients at end of life. This is not a job for everyone. We experience loss over and over, and it can be difficult at times. You have to have the emotional strength to succeed in this field.
What personality characteristics make for amazing hospice nurses?
Humor. You just have to have humor. As a hospice nurse we deal with death over and over. If you can’t find some release, you will not last. Being able to laugh is so important, and allows you a way to release the stress and grief that is encountered on a daily basis. You also have to be able to be patient, to listen and to observe. Many times, we have patients that deny discomfort, or can’t express it, and we need to be able to “read” these patients in order to relieve their symptoms.
Being in hospice seems like it could be emotionally trying, or emotionally exhausting at times. Does it ever get hard to deal with this line of work? If so, what do you do to keep things positive and in perspective?
At times, it IS hard. We all have a sort of “shield” that we use to keep ourselves protected from the frequent losses we experience. But there is always the one patient that gets through from time to time no matter how hard we try. I get through those times by remembering what the family and patient would experience without us, without hospice. They could end up dying in a facility rather than in the comfort of their own home, they could end up dying in pain, or struggling emotionally at end of life. All of this is avoided with hospice involved. That’s what keeps me going.
Do you have any final words of wisdom for people seeking to become a hospice nurse?
Hospice is the most rewarding field I have ever worked in. I ask all nurses to think back to how difficult it was for you to lose a loved one, how it could have gone better. YOU can change this. You can bring joy, peace and comfort to a patient and their loved ones at one of the most difficult times in their lives. Dame Cicely Saunders, one of the founders of hospice, once said “How people die lives on in the memory of those who live on”. YOU can be a part of making this a positive experience for all.