Palliative Expert Betty Ferrell on Pandemic’s Lessons

As a nurse for four decades and years working as a pioneer and researcher in the palliative care field, Dr. Betty Ferrell has a unique lens on death and dying. As we mark the two-year anniversary of the pandemic, we took the opportunity to talk with Ferrell about how this historic time made death different for health care workers.

“Nurses are accustomed to working with patients who die. Nurses are the ones at the bedside as people die. But we were not accustomed to 20 deaths in one day in the ICU. We weren’t accustomed to very young people who were very healthy yesterday being the patient that clearly was declining rapidly. That was very difficult for nurses.”

Ferrell explained during COVID, nurses, in particular, took on a variety of roles.

“In the absence of any family, the nurses became family. Nurses were at the bedside when the two chaplains in the hospital were so stretched. So it was the nurse reading scripture or saying the rosary with a patient in their final breaths of life.”

Ferrell leads the End-of-Life Nursing Education Consortium, which provides palliative care training for nurses worldwide. ELNEC responded to the COVID crisis with information to support them during this unprecedented time. But Ferrell told Solace that COVID stretched the health care system to its limit.

“COVID stretched the entire health care system, and certainly nurses, farther beyond anywhere we had ever been stretched before.”

And, she says, there’s been a high cost to the lessons of the pandemic.

“Everything we’ve learned, we’ve certainly learned at a cost, and we’ve paid a high cost in this pandemic. People are just exhausted. They are physically and emotionally exhausted. That can’t be overstated. We’ve stretched people far, far beyond any degree of normalcy. Of course, we’ve learned a lot. We’ve certainly learned what we can do. ”

Ferrell says as a society, we need to think of the cost of this pandemic, especially its impact on health care and hospice workers and families.

“I think a valuable lesson is also to step back and really think about the cost. We now have a lot of clinicians leaving the field. It started with people who were perhaps planning on retiring five years from now and they said, “I’m done, I’m out of here.” But then it started being people who were early in their careers or mid-career people. We’re paying an enormous price because we really did push people beyond their limits. Yes, we’ve learned a lot and there’s a huge human cost for our patients and clinicians as well.”

Despite the challenges of the last two years, Ferrell urges us to celebrate, remember and honor those who “showed up” to do the work of COVID.

“At the end of the day, you have to look across the country and around the world and say, people responded, they showed up to do what had to be done. People did unthinkable things to do the work of COVID.”

“We first need to say, ‘Let’s all celebrate what we have done. Let’s celebrate the good care,’” Ferrell shared during an emotional moment in a PBS segment last year.

“At the end of the day, what we all have to say is that we showed up. Nurses, doctors, everyone showed up for this pandemic. It’s our obligation now to see how we can better support them for the future because they’ve done amazing work.”

Betty Ferrell, MSN, Ph.D., is the director of the Division of Nursing Research and Education at City of Hope, a cancer research and treatment organization. Ferrell’s research has included palliative care, quality of life, pain management, end-of-life care and interprofessional education.

WebM.D. named Ferrell a health care hero for her leadership in palliative care in 2016 and PBS featured her last year in Brief but Spectacular.

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