Guiding With Empathy

Mar 01, 2019

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Nursing reminds us of our humanity and implores us to live each moment as the last, as we’ve lived the last moments of someone else’s life more times than we care to count. Becoming a nurse is not a destination but a blessed journey through life — yours and theirs.

Erin DuFour

When ICU bedside nurse Erin DuFour lost three family members within a few short months, she was overwhelmed with grief. Rather than withdraw from the world, Erin used her grief to notice the needs of those around her. She delivered the best patient care of her career and stepped up to act as a leader in her local AACN chapter despite having little experience. We spoke with DuFour about her experience and how loss, grief and empathy helped her become a better nurse — and a better leader.

Where do you work and in what capacity?

Lafayette General Medical Center, main campus, ICU bedside nurse.

How did you get started in nursing?

You could say it was by accident. On my 30th birthday, I finally received my dream offer to become an ARFF — aircraft, rescue and firefighting — firefighter in Alexandria, Louisiana. I was required to become an EMT by the end of the year, but that wasn’t good enough for me, so I expanded my EMS education to paramedic. After several years, I felt the pull to become a flight medic and was told by the local company that they were requiring all their flight medics to go back to school for nursing. I signed up for nursing school, and the rest is history.

How did you become involved in critical care?

I fell in love with critical care at the fire department. Being a first responder is not for the faint of heart. Adventure, adrenaline, quick critical thinking, teamwork, care and compassion for others run through my veins.

Share an experience you had as a nurse that shaped or impacted your outlook or philosophy as a caregiver.

In 2016, I lost my mother to stage-four breast cancer, my father three weeks later to a heart attack and my 94-year-old grandfather three months later. During that time, it was amazingly difficult to return to the bedside in the ICU. But with each required shift, by the grace of God, I delivered the most compassionate care I felt I had ever offered before. Two patients, along with their family members and friends, stand out in particular. Both passed away on the unit after withdrawal of care; one after fighting breast cancer and the other after battling lung cancer. My personal loss and theirs taught me that at times saving lives means letting go. We all need permission to let go and let God, to let true healing take place. Suffering does so much to not only the body, but to our hearts, minds and souls. When the suffering ends, the healing begins. It’s a very long journey, though!

Your chapter had no leader last year, so you stepped up at NTI’s Leadership Development Workshop (LDW). What was that like?

It was scary. I had just lost three of the most important and influential people in my life. All I really wanted to do was withdraw from social life and bury myself in my grief. But, looking back, AACN and our chapter gave me purpose and made me redefine my “why.” I rewrote my vision and mission for the board and chapter after returning from NTI last year.

Can you describe the Heart of Acadiana Chapter?

AACN’s Heart of Acadiana Chapter is dedicated to being a catalyst for excellence in critical care and progressive care nursing through education, promotion of certification, networking, collaboration and community service/outreach. Member eligibility is based on educational and service activities that support AACN and the local chapter.

Talk about your chapter experience a bit. It’s amazing that you went in as a leader with little experience and accomplished what you have.

Being the chapter president is just a title. Sure, it has detailed responsibilities outlined by national and perhaps by the particular chapter you serve in, but the board, the members and the community are what drive me. I came back from NTI last year wanting our chapter to be recognized for the Circle of Excellence in every category — that didn’t happen since we had no plan in place for accomplishing it. Still, a wise friend recently reminded me that I am leaving this chapter better than how I received it.

And now your chapter has a scholarship program. How did that happen?

I went to LDW and NTI 2017 by myself. Three of our members went by way of one hospital in town, and one of our APN members footed the bill for her trip. However, the other major hospitals, including mine, had cut their educational budgets, and no other members could attend on their own accord. After my personal and professional “spiritual” revival, I passionately presented to the board the importance of our chapter affording others such an experience. We were able to create an NTI scholarship that allowed two board members and one chapter member to attend this year. It is still in the early stages, but the potential is there to one day send the entire board and many other members to such a life-changing, career-building event.

What about certification? Why is it important and what does it mean to you?

Certification is important. It validates our experiences, our knowledge and our abilities. It imparts competence, trust and commitment. It benefits the organization, the department, the patient and families, and the nurse both personally and professionally. The personal aspect speaks volumes to me. Beyond continued education, certification enhances my self-worth and focus. It gives me a sense of accomplishment and boosts my self-confidence.

This speaks to the importance of Healthy Work Environments and how impassioned nurses like you can help take their chapters to the next level. Can you share your thoughts?

Leading volunteer groups can feel like herding cats — impossible when everyone has their own ideas and agenda, and when they forget why they volunteered in the first place. This is where skilled communication comes in to redirect everyone to the vision that the board created, to reignite the passion everyone felt after NTI or to have honest conversations about what’s holding us back from meaningful contribution. True collaboration requires a personal commitment to someone or something beyond yourself, and that oftentimes means the relationships within the board and your chapter. Meaningful recognition is essential. We need to be reminded of our valuable contributions as individuals and as a team. And then there’s authentic leadership. Author Henna Inam wrote, “Authentic leadership is the full expression of Me for the benefit of We.” In my opinion, that “expression of me” is servitude, inspiration and imparting excellence.

In your opinion, what makes nursing such a great career?

Nursing holds a special place in my heart. I began my career in pediatrics before transitioning to the adult ICU, so I have taken care of all ages of life. There is no greater blessing than to welcome life into this world, while also being able to hold the hand of one who is leaving this world. Nurses experience life firsthand from birth to death and all the good, bad and ugly in between. We experience it with a crowd of people or alone at the bedside. We experience it with all our senses but most importantly with our hearts. We cry for and we cry with the lives we touch and those that touch us. Nursing reminds us of our humanity and implores us to live each moment as the last, as we’ve lived the last moments of someone else’s life more times than we care to count. Becoming a nurse is not a destination but a blessed journey through life — yours and theirs.