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Compassionate Care to the Very End

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VCU Health Community Memorial Hospital Nurse Becomes the Voice for Change, Living Out Our Mission, Vision and Values for End-of-Life Patients

Erin Davis is a mother of four and a dedicated nurse who knows exactly what’s most important in life. When asked, the director of VCU Health Community Memorial Hospital’s Palliative Care Program says unhesitatingly: “Family, friends, and people. Everything else is replaceable.”

Her heart for people and can-do attitude made her the perfect candidate to envision, build, and lead her rural, southcentral Virginia hospital’s new program to support patients nearing the end of life. Who chose her to do it?  

She did.

End-of-life planning is complex and difficult

When Erin joined the hospital’s acute care floor, she was a brand-new nurse who found herself caring for many patients with advanced life-limiting illnesses.

“I noticed that we had a large number of geriatric patients who required extensive education, advance-care planning, and eventually end-of-life care,” she said.

Like most medical staff across the country, Erin and her colleagues didn’t have the specialized training to delve into the complex and difficult end-of-life discussions with their patients and their families. The staff simply were not able to properly help patients navigate their options, develop goals of care, or manage their symptoms to optimize the quality of their remaining life.

After three years, Erin was sure of two things: their patients deserved better and she had to do something to ensure they got it. The mother of four had spent years as a stay-at-home mom, putting her dream of earning her degree and becoming a nurse on hold for 14 years. Helping patients was the very reason she was here, a long-deferred calling she’d worked so hard to achieve. Moreover, her grandmother, a funeral home director, had instilled in Erin a special compassion and respect for grieving families dealing with death.

“Everyone deserves a good ending”

“I was taught not to fear death but to honor loved ones. Everyone deserves a good ending,” she said.

Erin poured herself into researching other palliative care programs and comparing their lengths of stay, costs per stay, and readmission rates with Community Memorial Hospital’s. Emboldened with data and a growing passion for the subject, Erin approached Assistant Director of Medical-Surgical Telemetry Linda Norman and Director of Nursing Mellisa Black with her research. Linda and Mellisa encouraged Erin to present her findings to other key stakeholders including the Nursing Board, the Medicine Board, and the Medicine Committee. She next made contact with Dr. Danielle Noreika, a palliative care and pain management specialist at VCU Health’s Medical Center North Hospital, and Brian Cassel, Ph.D., VCU Massey Cancer Center’s director of palliative care research, both in Richmond.

Support, expert guidance and all the education she could find

Every step of the way, Erin was met with support, expert guidance, and often both from her VCU Health colleagues.

Meanwhile, Erin also attended every end-of-life training she could get to and completed numerous online courses on palliative care. Based on everything she learned from these and her team members in the VCU Health system, Erin soon developed a care model, business plan, and screening tool. Dr. Noreika offered her services via telemedicine.

More than a year later, thanks to one very motivated nurse and the collaborative support of her team members, Erin’s hospital had its first palliative care program, which officially launched in November of 2019. Call it icing on the cake, but Erin has also earned a Service Excellence Award from VCU Health for her over-and-beyond efforts to envision and build the program.

A final farewell

Though awards and the pride of a job well done are satisfying, they don’t really compare to the gratification Erin gets from providing comfort to patients and families in their most difficult times. When one patient with terminal cancer revealed to her his fear that his young children wouldn’t remember him after he passed, Erin along with Care Partner Mae Smith and Unit Secretary Renee Johnson brought him two teddy bears capable of recording voice messages. Erin then helped the man find the right words for his final farewell. Numerous families have told her they “could not have made it without you.”

“We cannot change the ending,” said Erin, “but we can improve their journey by easing the burden of pain and suffering.”

“Be the voice of change”

If any of the recognition she’s garnered is worthwhile, explained Erin, it’s if it inspires other nurses who notice an opportunity for improvement in patient care to work hard for a solution. 

To those nurses, Erin implores: “Be the voice of change, stay engaged in your environment, and always do what is best for the patient.”

In doing her best for patients, Erin has exemplified nearly every aspect of VCU Health’s mission, vision, and especially our values: innovation, impact, service, trust, attitude, and respect.