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Compassionate caregiving at the heart of Baystate nursing

May 11, 2011

Compassionate Caregiver Award Feature

Tie-in to National Nurses Week, May 6-12

When Gale L. LaBelle, RN learned she was this year’s recipient of the Sharon A. Smith Compassionate Caregiver Award, she said she “cried for days.”

“I was very surprised to learn the news. I knew Sharon. She was a wonderful, compassionate person, and to receive this award named in her honor just makes me ecstatic,” said LaBelle, a 23-year nurse at Baystate Medical Center, who delivers care on a medical/surgical unit.

The Beckett resident, who grew up in Springfield, was honored during a special Nurses Week Gala held at the Baystate Health Education Center on Whitney Avenue in Holyoke.

Established in 2004 in memory of Smith, the late nursing leader who made a lasting impact on the care of patients at Baystate Medical Center, the award recognizes an exceptional caregiver who exemplifies the compassion and patient-centered care that Smith championed so passionately during her tenure as a nursing leader at Baystate Health.

In nominating her colleague for the hospital’s Compassionate Caregiver Award, Laurie Kaeppel, RN, assistant nurse manager for the Springfield 3 medical/surgical and oncology units, noted a series of events “that have made me pause and admire Gale’s compassion and advocacy for her patients and their families.”

“When we think of a nurse who deserves an award for their compassion, we often think of the nurse who cares for patients during a traumatic event or a life-threatening illness. This nurse deserves the praise and accolades that come with caring for these patients and their loved ones,” wrote Kaeppel in her nomination letter.  “However, Gale excels in caring for patients that can be a challenge. They may have behavioral health issues, an addiction, an underlying psychological diagnosis, or a patient who has been labeled incompetent. She cares for these patients as if they were her own mother, sister, brother or child. She brings in clothes, blankets, food, creams and other lotions, as well as special presents, for homeless patients and other patients with acute needs,” said Kaeppel.

"National Nurse Week" was first observed in 1954, based on a bill introduced in Congress by Rep. Frances Payne Bolton of Ohio, an advocate for nursing and public health. The year marked the 100th anniversary of nursing profession pioneer Florence Nightingale's mission to treat wounded soldiers during the Crimean War. The International Council of Nurses (ICN) established May 12, Nightingale's birthday, as an annual "International Nurse Day" in 1974. But it wasn't until the early 1990s, based on an American Nurses Association Board of Directors action, that recognition of nurses' contributions to community and national health was expanded to a week-long event each year from May 6-12.

In 2010, Americans voted nurses the most trusted profession in America for the 11th time in 12 years in the annual Gallup poll that ranks professions for their honesty and ethical standards. Nurses' honesty and ethics were rated "very high" or "high" by 81 percent of poll respondents.

LaBelle graduated from the nursing program at Springfield Technical Community College (STCC) and later earned her bachelor’s degree in nursing from the University of Massachusetts Amherst in 2009. And while nursing education promotes the learning of clinical skills and compassionate care, true compassion like LaBelle’s often begins from the heart.

“I’ve had a lot of challenges throughout the years and met many people along the way who taught me a lot about life. I didn’t grow up rich and did the best I could while raising three kids as a single mom,” said LaBelle, who held several jobs to support her family, including working as a secretary, waitress, and a pet groomer on the weekends.

LaBelle, who became a nurse in her mid-30s, said she “always wanted to be a nurse” but didn’t attend nursing school until coping with another challenge in her life – caring for her ill parents for several years.

“I love being a nurse today and I thank God that I can do this for others. We have a lot of autonomy as nurses at Baystate Medical Center to make our own decisions in caring for our patients. Nursing is a very collaborative process and nurses are partners in care along with many other disciplines at the hospital. We go to meetings, make decisions together and incorporate best care practices into our nursing specialty,” said LaBelle.

“Nursing is such a wonderful profession involving a lot of humanity, communication, and responsibility as you care not only for a person’s physical body but their spirit, as well,” she added.

Kaeppel said she considers Gale “an unsung hero to me because she advocates and gives a voice to patients who often go unheard or unnoticed.”

“What nurse hasn’t been frustrated at one time or another by the apparent lack of concern by one patient for another sicker patient. That patient may yell and scream demanding pain medication long before it’s warranted. And where others might see a patient who may not need that repeated dose of pain medication and is consuming their time from attending to a sicker patient, Gale sees a person in need and acting out for some love and attention,” said Kaeppel.

“This amazing gift that Gale possesses is one of tolerance and human connection no matter who the human being is or what their status in life may be. These patients rarely say ‘thank you’ or even understand the care and compassion delivered to them by Gale – but this is a learned behavior by them brought on by years of abuse or neglect. However, Gale isn’t looking for any thank-yous for what she does,” added Kaeppel.

As LaBelle explains it, for some patients, “you just have to try harder.”

“You have to sit down and talk with them, experience what they are experiencing in their lives, and I truly believe that makes them feel better about themselves.…and that is a very special thing,” said LaBelle about the many diverse populations she serves as a “compassionate caregiver.”

“It’s my feeling that compassionate caregiving validates humanity and how people feel, it’s a very emotional thing for me….like the spirit,” she added.

Now that her children are grown, LaBelle volunteers to work every Christmas so that other young mothers on her unit can spend Christmas with their loved ones.  LaBelle, who truly knows the meaning of “it is better to give than to receive,” has been known to bring in an entire Christmas dinner for staff to enjoy. And that goes for Thanksgiving, as well.

“It’s important that we share dinner together as a caring family,” said LaBelle about her fellow nurses and other staff, who she noted “also chip in.”

“I work the holidays because my children are grown now and I think it is important that younger nurses with families spend time with their children. They grow up so fast that you need to spend quality time with them,” added LaBelle, who also has two stepchildren and seven grandchildren.

“Gale finds out the hopes and dreams of our homeless patients and tries to fulfill them,” said Kaeppel, recalling a patient who was on their unit a few years back for an extended period of time.

“The patient was known to be difficult at times, had lived a hard life and was now on dialysis at a young age. She would lash out at staff, swear at them and often refuse treatment,” she added.

Over time, Gale and the other nurses on the floor got to know the patient on a more personal level and learned that she loved to knit. Staff brought in yarn for her and she made beautiful scarves, hats and mittens. Then, when Gale learned the patient was to be discharged not long after Christmas, she sprung into her Santa Claus mode.

After learning that the patient had always wanted a white down coat to keep her warm while living on the streets of Springfield, LaBelle not only bought her one down coat, but two coats along with other items to protect her from the chill of a long winter’s night.

“I try to provide little things for these patients, many of whom have suffered through traumatic events in their life, by asking them what they might really need or just want to have. It might be a book, a shirt, or whatever makes them feel good, because they often don’t have family around to provide for them,” said LaBelle.

LaBelle said she would recommend nursing as a profession for any woman or man considering a career in health care. And, as a longtime nurse, she is able to instill a little of her wisdom on the many area nursing students who are completing their clinical rotations as part of their curriculum on her unit.

“I tell them to listen to their patients, to communicate, and to deliver the best quality and compassionate care possible. And I tell them to spend time with their patients talking with them and promoting prevention,” said LaBelle.

“Equally important is that I tell these students that they must understand what their patients are saying to them and treat the whole person. Sometimes we cannot fix what is physically wrong with them, but we can try extra hard to make them smile and make them happy,” she added.

In addition to the Nursing Gala where LaBelle was honored, nurses at Baystate Medical Center participated in several celebratory and educational events as part of National Nurses Week.

“I have had the good fortune of working side by side with truly excellent and compassionate nurses. Nurses significantly contribute to improving the well-being of their patients and the health of the community through the relentless pursuit of excellence in patient care and in the advancement of knowledge,” said Deborah

Morsi RN, PhD, vice president, Patient Care Services, Baystate Medical Center, and chief nursing officer for Baystate Health.

“Nurses provide a safe passage for patients and their families from the beginning to the end of life. I salute our nurses for their dedication and commitment to their patients, families, community and profession,” she added.