Award-Winning Nurse Learns from Hospice Patients

Each October, the Tift Regional Medical Center in Tifton, Georgia, awards one nurse the Jensen Patrick Nursing Award at their annual employee banquet. The award honors excellence in nurses who have “demonstrated unusual concern for the welfare and happiness of patients and have performed extraordinary acts of kindness.”

In 2018, Michelle Williford, a nurse case manager at Hospice of Tift Area, received this prestigious award. Her relationship to Tift Regional Medical Center is a special one, in which she traveled a unique journey from patient to employee.

Perhaps surprisingly, nursing wasn’t Williford’s initial career plan. She began college as a pre-dentistry major, but decided to shift to nursing after a life-changing experience put her on the receiving end of excellent nursing care.

In February of 2006, Williford had to be cut from her car after a terrible car crash. The professionals who helped her said the wreck was so serious that she should not have survived. Williford suffered a concussion, scrapes and bruises, and multiple fractures, requiring hip surgery and a week-long hospital stay. She couldn’t walk, even after being released from the hospital, and had to drop out of college to rebuild her strength. Through the help of physical therapy, she learned to walk with a walker, then a cane, and finally on her own.

When Williford was well enough to go back to school, she changed her major to nursing, inspired by “the most caring and compassionate nurses, student nurses, and staff.” She now enjoys being able “to assist in the care of others as I had been so wonderfully cared for,” and has been employed by Tift Regional for 11 years. She considers becoming a nurse “one of the best and most rewarding decisions,” she’s ever made.

As a hospice nurse case manager, Williford focuses on increasing patients’ quality of life by assisting with medications, providing pain and symptom management, and acquiring needed equipment and supplies. She emphasizes that being a hospice nurse involves much more than completing tasks – they also “provide emotional support and are active listeners when patients and their family or caregivers need to talk to someone.”

Since hospice nurses work with people in their final chapters of life, Williford said educating patients and their families is a major part of what she does. Also, hospice “takes a village,” which means nurses work closely with Certified Nursing Assistants, social workers, chaplains, and office staff to address “all aspects of healthcare.”

Williford isn’t the only one doing the educating, however. She finds hospice nursing rewarding, partly because of how much she learns from her patients and their families on a daily basis.
“You never stop learning as a nurse,” she said, emphasizing just how much her patients teach her. “I learn something new every day, and it is not always medical, but simple life lessons.”
Working in hospice helps Williford recognize the importance of “simple things, such as being present and available, and often sitting in silence with the families.” She often spends time with people as they reflect and reminisce about their lives.

“There are often tears, hugs, or even laughing until you cry as you listen to old stories,” she said.
Not everyone would be comfortable with the emotional intensity of hospice work. Many people have asked Williford how she handles working with hospice patients every day, getting to know patients and instead of watching them heal, having to watch them reach the end of their lives.
“How could I not do this every day?” she said, which reflects the kind and joyous attitude that earned her the Jensen Patrick Nursing Award.

Written by: Jay Summer | Photography by: Eric Vinson

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