Hospice and Palliative Medicine Visionary Betty Ferrell Shares Her Insights on the Field

In celebration of 25 years serving the profession, the American Academy of Hospice and Palliative Medicine (AAHPM) asked its 5,000 members to nominate who they think are the leaders – or Visionaries – in the field. They then asked members to vote for the top 10 among the 111 nominated.

“This program recognizes key individuals who have been critical in building and shaping our field over the past 25 years,” noted Steve R. Smith, AAHPM executive director and CEO. “These individuals represent thousands of other healthcare professionals in this country that provide quality medical care and support for those living with serious illness — each and every day.”

The Visionaries – 14 women and 16 men – are physicians, nurses and hospice pioneers such as British physician, nurse and social worker Cicely Saunders, credited with starting the modern hospice movement, and Elisabeth Kübler Ross, author of numerous books including the groundbreaking “On Death and Dying.” Five elected officials were nominated and one of them, former President Ronald Reagan, was named a Visionary for signing into law the Medicare hospice benefit in 1982.

Many of the visionaries will be sharing their thoughts about the field and who inspired their work. We’ll be posting them over the next several months. Today’s post is from Betty Ferrell, PhD MA RN CHPN FAAN FPCN, Research Scientist, City of Hope National Medical Center in Duarte, CA.

Who has most influenced your work and what impact has he or she had?
My professional life has been rich with the influence of many colleagues across disciplines, some present in my daily work at City of Hope National Medical Center, and many across the globe who struggle to advance palliative care in circumstances far more challenging than my own. Over the past 14 years of our ELNEC project (End of Life Nursing Education Consortium), I have been strongly supported by many; chief among them are Rose Virani, Pam Malloy, Judy Paice, Patrick Coyne, and Kathy Foley.

My mentors have come from every discipline and I am humbled by my colleagues in medicine, nursing, chaplaincy and social work. I am confident that quality palliative care exists only when we all work together with a shared vision.

If I were to select one person who has most influenced my career it would be Nessa Coyle. I met Nessa about 25 years ago and we became cross-country colleagues and now close friends. Nessa is the embodiment of palliative care. She has the vast knowledge of pain and symptom management, the art of psychosocial support, a deep connection with both existential concerns and an intense passion and clear vision for what is right. From Nessa I have learned to remain focused on what matters, to be silent at times and to rage at others, and to remain in awe of humans facing the end of life.

What does it mean to you to be named a “Visionary” in Hospice and Palliative Medicine?
I began my career in 1977 when there were less than 10 hospices in the country, there were none in my state, the words “palliative care” didn’t exist in our vocabulary, and when Kübler-Ross work was only beginning to be known.

I count my life as one of enormous opportunity and blessing to have been a part of dedicated and passionate colleagues who have changed the culture of care and created hospice and palliative care as an essential component of health care and who have advocated for such care as a human right. I recall working closely with Diane Meier creating the National Consensus Project Guidelines, fully aware of what a tremendous gift it is to be able to do important work in the company of those you admire the most.

To be recognized as a “visionary” is a very special honor, especially having been nominated by colleagues in AAHPM. When I think “visionary” I think of those who were bold enough to see that there was a better way. I consider myself as one lone voice in a very large chorus. Advances in our field have only been possible through the generous spirit of many with a common vision that the end of life is not a medical failure, but a sacred time of life.

What is your vision for the future of hospice and Palliative Medicine?
My vision for the future is that all people facing serious illness and the end of life will have access to high quality palliative care. I hope that palliative care will be so well integrated that it would be shocking for a patient and family to not receive this care. I have heard many of my colleagues say that we who have been so privileged to be a part of this early history are building the care system we want for ourselves.

I envision a time when our society fully expects to receive “compassionate and competent palliative care” which are the words of Dame Cicely Saunders and that we have indeed built a system of care that responds to that expectation. I am confident that vision can be a reality.

More information on the Visionaries project, including the list of 30 Visionaries is on the Academy’s website www.aahpm.org.

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