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Helping patients enjoy life, even in their final days


A father with terminal cancer expressed concern that his two young children would not remember him after he died. In response, his nurse bought two teddy bears that could record a voice message and worked with him to find the words for his final gift.

The nurse was Erin Davis, who works in the palliative care program at VCU Community Memorial Hospital in South Hill.

“It was truly an emotional moment when he presented the gifts to his children, who will now always have a way to remember their dad,” said Mellisa Black, director of acute care services at Community Memorial.

‘Everyone deserves a good ending’

Davis knows about navigating death. Her grandmother, a nurse turned funeral home owner, taught her the importance of empathy when making end-of-life plans.

“She instilled in us the ability to show compassion and help others in the most difficult time of life,” Davis said.

It is this belief that motivated Davis to develop the palliative care program at Community Memorial.

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

She watched providers struggle to discuss final wishes with families, and she listened to patients who did not understand their options when planning their end-of-life care.

After conducting independent research on palliative care practices, Davis approached her supervisor with a plan to improve the team’s ability to care for patients nearing end of life. Short on staff and resources, Davis developed a nurse-led palliative care approach that collaborates with other hospital departments to increase the resources available to meet the complex needs of patients navigating end of life.

On Wednesday, she was presented with the Service Excellence Award from VCU Health System for her work. Davis was nominated by her peers, patients and leadership for outstanding performance and dedication to service. The Service Excellence Award was started by a patient's family, Jess and Sandy Schmidt, who sought to honor their nurse, Denise Lynch, for the high-level of care their loved one received while at VCU Medical Center.

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

Once the program is implemented this fall, Davis will be able to meet with patients face-to-face and help them communicate their wishes to their families and care team. Once discharged, patients will have access to a doctor via telemedicine who will help manage symptoms.

From the chaplain and social workers to hospitalists and primary care physicians, Davis will be able to improve education, care planning and symptom management for patients in palliative care.

Their ending, their way

Davis helps patients live their last days exactly how they envision them, whether that means going fishing or attending their grandson’s baseball game.

“I hope the patient’s pain and symptoms are managed so effectively that they can enjoy life, whatever that means for them. We cannot change the ending, but we can improve their journey by easing the burden of pain and suffering,” Davis said.

She encourages other nurses to help come up with solutions to problems they face.

“Remember your passion for helping others. If you see a need, stay engaged in your environment and advocate for what is best for your patients.”