In Honor of National Nurse’s Week May 6-12
When Janet Winegarner was just ten and growing up in Ohio, she became very close to her grandfather who was dying from Black Lung, but still living at home. She recalls, “When the end was near, and he was being prepared to be moved to the hospital, he was terrified. Because, you see, back then if you were old, the hospital was where you went to die. I remember him screaming as they took him out, and that I couldn’t visit him, because children weren’t allowed.” Thus began a lifelong desire to question the status quo and a fascination with many of the typically taboo subjects in society, especially the dying process.
18 years later, as a nursing student at the College of Marin, Janet had the good fortune to attend a presentation by Elizabeth Kübler-Ross, author of the ground-breaking book, On Death and Dying. She recalls, “After the speech, Dr. Kübler-Ross walks right up to me and says, ‘I think you need to be a hospice nurse.’” It seems her career path was taking shape.
So, when her preceptorship advisor at Sonoma State, where she was completing her BS in Nursing, suggested that there was a doctor in Marin who was part of a group exploring the formation of a hospice, she jumped at the opportunity. Dr. Bill Lamers took her under his wing as he visited patients in their homes, and as he spread the word in the medical community about a very different way for terminally-ill patients to spend their final days.
“Back then, there was no such thing as an official ‘hospice’,” says Janet, “Bill and the other people who were volunteering their time to the project were forming a Home Health Agency, so they could have access to Medicare funding. Bill was very excited to have a nurse on board. Especially a student nurse that he didn’t have to pay,” she adds with a grin. “I teamed up with a nursing doctoral student, Alice Demi, and together we would work out health care plans for those first patients.”
That seminal agency, formed in 1975 by Lamers, Rev. John Thornton, an Episcopal priest, and Barbara Hill, a community advocate—and soon to be joined by Mary Taverna—would become Hospice of Marin, only the second hospice in the country and the first in California.
But back to Janet’s story. When asked what draws her to hospice care, she scoffs at the typical response of “…’it feels good to help people.’ What, exactly, does that mean?” Rather, she draws on her sense of curiosity, “Death is an extremely intimate time. The humanity you can share is unbelievable. I’ve always been interested in what somebody else is experiencing. And, having witnessed hundreds and hundreds of deaths, I’ve learned that death is a universal, but very sacred thing.”
What makes her such a good hospice nurse? “I have an innate ability to actively listen; it’s just how I’m wired. I’m also utterly grateful to experience this journey with those who let us be there.”
Being a hospice nurse is a challenging profession. Dealing with so many people at the end of their lives, despite the rewards, can lead some nurses to choose other career paths.
But, for many, the calling is unmistakable. And for Janet Winegarner, RN, BSN, the decision to become a hospice nurse has led to 41 years of service at Hospice by the Bay, which also makes her the longest-serving hospice nurse in the U.S.