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A Nurse’s Tribute: Nurses honor colleagues at time of their death

In life, nurses spend their careers taking care of others.

In death, nurses take care of one another.

Karen Eggleston considers it an honor to serve as a volunteer member of the Elkhart General Nursing Honor Guard. Their role is to pay tribute to fellow nurses by performing a ceremony at their funeral or memorial service.

“Being a nurse and helping others are such a privilege, and the honor guard combines both those passions to assist families in the community who have lost a beloved nurse of their own,” said Eggleston, an Elkhart General registered nurse in the Regional Center for Joint Replacement.

The ceremonies are both emotional and poignant.

Three to four nurses will attend the funeral dressed head to toe in white. They wear traditional white uniforms, some wearing blue capes, and silently stand or “keep watch” at the nurse’s casket.

On a nearby table, the nurses display a blue cape and white cap, and set out a white bible, lamp and framed note that reads: “Please respect the silence of the Nursing Honor Guard as we pay tribute to your loved one and their chosen profession.”

Since the inception of the Elkhart Chapter in 2017, the nursing honor guard has performed 12 ceremonies. In addition to Eggleston, the members are: Kristy Ludy, Jen Nicholl, Kim Henke, Amber Krause, Joyce Hislope, Joann Rose and Karie Dussel.

Statewide, there are 15 nursing honor guard chapters that have performed more than 330 services since 2008.

“The service is similar to a military tribute,” Eggleston said. “Our honor guard stands vigil beside the nurse’s casket during visitation, then we perform a short ceremony to honor the fallen nurse. It’s an emotional experience for us.”

Jen Nicholl admitted she did not expect to feel so moved by the experience.

“Each time we have a funeral, I feel it’s an honor to do what we do, so the nurse’s family and friends understand how important their loved one was to our hospital,” said Nicholl, an Elkhart General registered nurse in the Intensive Care Unit.

“Being a nurse is a whole different family you become part of. It’s dysfunctional, it’s chaos, it’s tears, it’s great moments. We spend a lot of horrible moments together and great moments as well. No one will understand that except a nurse,” she added.

At the beginning of the ceremony, the nurses light a small lamp that symbolizes a nurse’s dedication to the profession. Nursing pioneer Florence Nightingale would make rounds through the hospitals while carrying this lamp during the Crimean war in the mid-1800s.

They recite the Florence Nightingale Pledge, which is often recited at pinning ceremonies.

Then they say the Nurse’s Prayer.

Give me strength and wisdom when others need my touch; a soothing work to speak to them, their hearts yearn for so much. Give me joy and laughter, to lift a weary soul; pour in me compassion to make the broken whole. Give me gentle healing hands, for those placed in my care; a blessing to those who need me, this is a nurse’s prayer.

Kristy Ludy, an Elkhart General registered nurse and housing supervisor, said these words resonate with each and every nurse.

“We think back on our own careers and know how much we have given, and how they have done the same,” Ludy said. “We think of the thousands of lives the nurse we are honoring has impacted over the course of their career. They were a light.”

Finally, there is roll call. A member of the nursing honor guard will call the fallen nurse’s name three times to report for duty, pausing each time her name is called.

After the third time, the nurse announces how the fallen nurse is officially released from his or her earthly nursing duties.

Then the lamp is extinguished and presented to the family.

“Friends and family come up to us and express how moved they are and offer their appreciation of our service and our profession,” said Eggleston, who is working to expand the nursing honor guard across Beacon Health System. “Providing this service is an honor and the family is often in awe of this ceremonial display for their loved one.”

Kim Henke, an Elkhart General registered nurse and critical care nursing educator, volunteers on the nursing honor guard as a way she can offer gratitude to the unsung heroes of healthcare.

“Nurses work crazy hours, care for complex patients, and adapt to changing and chaotic environments with few breaks or perks,” Henke said. “I deeply admire nurses who passionately pursue excellence so that they may improve the lives of those in their care. A final sendoff is a small way to say ‘thank you’ and extend an appreciation for a life well-lived.”

About Heidi Prescott-Wieneke