Honor Guard offers final tribute for fallen nurses

In a moving ceremony, a deceased nurse is "relieved of her duties" by her peers

click to enlarge Honor Guard offers final tribute for fallen nurses
Dianne Hacker leads the nurse’s prayer as ( left to right) Melanie Reynolds , Kelly Jones, Kelsey Maddox and Ellen Carpenter bow their heads in reverence.

A white rose lays upon a casket as the Nightingale tribute for a fallen nurse is recited. After three unanswered calls for duty, the fallen nurse can be laid to rest and released of her earthly duties.

Honoring a loved one at death, and the impact left behind, can be daunting for families. For some, their profession may have been more than just a career, but a lifelong purpose. Nursing is such a profession. Nurses dedicate their lives to caring for others in their time of pain and vulnerability, as well as in moments of joy. During a career, a nurse may have touched the lives of hundreds of thousands of patients and their families. These are lives touched, not just in a clinical role, but also as advocates, counselors and confidants. So a family may want a special way to honor them at their funeral or celebration of life. Recognizing this, Melanie Reynolds an advance nurse practitioner at Memorial Health System, organized the Central Illinois Nursing Honor Guard to serve these moments.

Reynolds had considered organizing a local chapter of the Nurse Honor Guard for quite some time after seeing the impact the national organization had made on nurses fallen during and after the pandemic. The organization offers a moving and free of charge ceremony to honor registered nurses, licensed practical nurses and advance nurse practitioners who will no longer answer the call for duty. There are similar practices for the fallen of the military and first responders. It was during the pandemic, however, that many people realized the acts of service, as well as the risks nurses take in the care of others. "For many, a nurse may be present for the very first and last breath," Reynolds explained. "A purposeful life should be honored in a unique way."

Melanie, who has 27 years of nursing experience, learned from her nurse mother, Ginny Long. Melanie recalls bringing the kids in the neighborhood to her home as Ginny would have the supplies and experience to clean and bandage any injury. Ginny, herself a graduate of St. John's School of Nursing in 1968, has 56 years of service. Melanie learned firsthand the impact a nurse can make by watching her mother's caring for others, as well as the physical, mental and spiritual exhaustion that can occur during a career. Yet, it was the impact of helping generations of families that Melanie has experienced in her own career that made it important to commemorate the impact nurses have. As her mother ages, it is something she thinks about more often. Ginny jokes that she just didn't want the Honor Guard's first local service to be in her honor. She is proud of her daughter's thoughtfulness.

click to enlarge Honor Guard offers final tribute for fallen nurses
Melanie Reynolds with her mother, Ginny Long, and her newly pinned daughter, Grace.

One of the Central Illinois Nurse Honor Guard's initial services was for nurse Maureen Barnes, who had become a patient of Reynolds. She was a registered nurse for over 30 years. Her husband, Troy, recalls that the family was quite honored when Reynolds called. Maureen Barnes had had various nursing roles, but initially worked for a local neurosurgeon, Dr. Lyle Wacaser. She would be called in the middle of the night to assist him in the operating room. "Maureen would answer these calls without any grumbling and never a complaint," her husband said. She would respond willingly to serve the patient. Maureen enjoyed the hands-on care. She also felt preserving their dignity it was key.

Her celebration of life included the honor guard ceremony. This was a gift for the family at a difficult time. Troy states he was emotionally overwhelmed when his late wife was "relieved of her duties" by her peers.

As a result of Reynolds' leadership, Sangamon County and its nine surrounding counties now have access to this volunteer group to provide a free service for any family of a deceased nurse. This service can be requested through the funeral home or directly from the organization itself. Fellow nurses of this group will provide a rite of passage ceremony to acknowledge the dedication of a life for the care of others and a blessing for a job well done. There are currently 700-plus members, comprising multigenerational and diverse nursing backgrounds. Currently there are over 70 actively committed and providing Honor Guard services.

click to enlarge Honor Guard offers final tribute for fallen nurses
Board of Directors of the CINHG (left to right) Kelly Jones, Dianne Hacker, Melanie Reynolds, Kelsey Maddox, Ellen Carpenter, Robin Wells

As the pandemic may have burned out many nurses into leaving the profession, it has also inspired a new generation to health care. The Honor Guard has rejuvenated a sense of collegiality and created a way to support each other and the families they serve. Reynolds says it has instilled pride and a rebirth of the old traditions such as the respect and honor of the white cap and the nursing pin.

Reynolds hopes that honoring nurses at their end of life will be available to all who request as more become aware of their presence. She smiles and gets a bit choked up as she expresses the satisfaction of being able to give back to those who have given so much of themselves to others. Reynolds beams with pride as she stands not only with her mother, nurse Ginny, but also her daughter, Grace, a newly pinned RN. They are three generations in white caps, standing alongside the others, together fulfilling the purpose of nursing and the Honor Guard.

Nicole Florence is a Springfield physician of almost 25 years.  She has a new passion for writing and telling stories within our community.

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