Let's Get to Know Susan!
Please share with us your nursing career path and your background.
My first role as a nurse was working in downtown Detroit’s medical center on an oncology unit. I loved the fact that on this unit one got to know the patients and their families, for at that time the patients would receive all their care on our floor, including both pre and post-surgery care, chemotherapy, and radiation treatments. I loved the intimacy of care that nursing was able to provide, and the exchanges of conversation that occurred during the laying on of hands.
After working in the oncology unit, I worked in the bone marrow transplant unit. At that time, bone marrow transplant was very new and the success rate of the transplants was exceedingly small. I also have worked in a surgical intensive care unit and a cardiac step-down unit both in leadership positions. I moved to CA in 1986 when I got married. My first job was at the ER in SF Kaiser, and then at Alta Bates in its respiratory care unit.
After my children were born, I started working on my master’s degree at UCSF but put it on hold for a few years. In 1995 I started to work for Hope Hospice. I found in hospice everything that I had been looking for as a nurse. I loved the camaraderie of the hospice team. I also loved going to patients’ homes and seeing how the power dynamic shifted. I was now a guest who could be asked to leave at any time! Being in the home enabled you to understand so much more about the patient and family and the challenges they faced.
In 1996 I received my MSN from UCSF in oncology nursing with a focus on pain and symptom management. I continued to work at Hope Hospice.
In 2010 I started at John Muir Hospital's palliative care team. I found the work and demands very different from the hospice work I had been doing. Frequently we were meeting with patients/families that had just been told for the first time of their diagnosis. I found the challenge of establishing trust when meeting people at the worst moments in their lives rewarding.
In 2013 when my son was 23 and working as an environmental engineer he was diagnosed with a very rare form of cancer. We were told from the start that there was no cure, but with treatment, my son could have more time. We all chose the gift of time. My son moved back to our home to receive his treatments. Most of his chemotherapy was done in-patient with hospital stays of 3-6 days every two weeks. My husband and I took turns sleeping in the hospital with him. I was now experiencing being on the other side of the bed as my personal and professional life collided. Through multiple chemotherapies, a complex surgical procedure, radiation therapy, and multiple small bowel obstructions. I calculated we probably spent 100 nights sleeping in the hospital throughout his treatment. I learned a lot about what it is like having medical personnel walk into your room, uninvited, delivering their agenda on their timelines. I constantly felt anxious and on guard during those hospital stays.
With the medical interventions my son received, he was given an extra 2.5 good years he would not have had otherwise. We had time to be present with each other, talk, and learn the value of SLOWING DOWN. When we got to the point where we knew we needed to call hospice, I called on my beloved Hope Hospice team. The team held my son, me, and my family in unbelievable love and support. In my son’s very last days, the incredible team of Hope Hospice and HEB transferred my son to the Bruns House for his last 36 hours of life. The gift they gave me to be with my son as his mother and not a nurse is a gift beyond words. They cared for him with incredible love and tenderness.
When I entered college at the University of Michigan, my goal was to become a psychologist. At that point, I had never even met a nurse and did not know what they did. After receiving my bachelor’s degree in psychology from the University of Michigan, I started work at the University of Michigan Hospital in their Children’s Psychiatric Unit as a mental health attendant.
At the same time, I became good friends with someone who worked as a medical-surgical nurse. I loved hearing her stories about her work and her patients and thus began my journey to return to school to become a nurse. I received my bachelor’s in nursing from the University of Texas in Austin.
After working in multiple areas of the hospital, I found what interested me most was having a deeper connection with patients/families. I wanted a practice that recognized that nursing tends to the whole person including their physical, emotional, and spiritual sides. Hospice and palliative care recognize that.
How do you recommend nurses take care of themselves to avoid compassion fatigue and burnout?
I think it is vitally important to take time for oneself. Taking 5 minutes to sit in a chair and do nothing but look outside the window (or sit outside and look) is incredibly powerful, and it is only 5 minutes.
Walking, hiking and yoga have always been a large part of my life. I do some type of movement daily, even if it is only 10 minutes of yoga. I believe that stress/anxiety gets stuck in our bodies and physically moving it out makes a big difference. I also find spending time outside in nature very nourishing.
I also think it is important to remember that one can be compassionate and empathetic while remembering one’s boundaries. I remind myself that this is someone else’s journey, not mine, and I can be most helpful as a compassionate presence to them.
As a hospice nurse, I would practice pausing before entering someone’s house, taking a breath, and asking for help from a power greater than myself to bring what was needed for this family. In the hospital, I try to practice that before I enter a room.
What inspired you to become a nurse and how did you find your passion in hospice?
When I was 7 years old my grandmother died. My mother then went into a deep depression that lasted many years. I think I realized even at that young age, that I would need to learn how to handle death differently and I believe that is what birthed my interest in hospice and palliative care.
My recommendation to new graduates who are interested in hospice and palliative care is to get good experience working in the hospital arena first. It is important to be comfortable working independently in the home environment as a hospice or palliative care nurse. I think that can only be done by getting experience with the role and skillset of being a nurse. I also believe that having some type of strong spiritual belief (which can be different from the religious belief) helps one to be able to do this work.
What I would like more people to know about hospice and palliative care is that the sooner patients/families get this type of support, the more patients/families can benefit.