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Health Care Hero Profile: W. Donnie Nelson, RN

Health Care Heroes

Saint Francis Foundation is proud to feature examples of the amazing staff at Saint Francis Memorial Hospital caring for our community, especially now during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Staff Profile:
W. Donnie Nelson, RN

Nurse Manager, Palliative Care Program
Saint Francis Memorial Hospital

Q. What is most challenging about your work during this current crisis?
A. I work in palliative care – I feel like it’s a discipline of medicine that is often misunderstood and always viewed as ‘end of life’ care.  My team maximizes quality of life for our patients; we think about how we can meet the patient where he or she is and provide support from a psychosocial, spiritual as well as clinical aspect.    

In the age of Covid-19, my team (of two) and I try to “create a moment,” for patients who are dying and their loved ones. I have been in many rooms of late of Covid19 + patients where I have a family of 10+ people from all over the country – and even the world – on a Zoom meeting on a Foundation iPad. I am the son, brother, father, nephew, cousin surrogate family member squeezing the hand of their loved while they pass. I’ve also been the person to “anoint the sick,’ while the chaplain or priest is also on the Zoom call saying a prayer – honestly, I was scared I would burst into flames lol, but I got a pass!

Q. Why do you do what to do? 
A. This is my calling. I gave my phone number to a person I had met in 2001 and we were supposed to go on a date. The next day I was called to CPMC on Webster because they had found my phone number on a folded piece of paper on a man who was brain dead in their care.  He had been robbed and beaten to death in the Tenderloin. I held that man’s hand like he were my partner — though he was a person I didn’t really know — while they took him off the ventilator. I would want someone to be present for me if that ever happened. And that’s why I work in palliative care.

Q. What are you learning from this unprecedented situation?
A. I am a lot stronger than I thought I was.  In the first few months I didn’t know if I could do this.  We were being told that we may very well likely run out of life support machines.  We had to look at policy as to what we would do if that happened.  Thankfully it did not.

Q. What do you feel most hopeful about right now?
A. I feel true change is happening and we are seeing this amazing world conscience happening.  I am witnessing people have true empathy and all coming together, especially here at Saint Francis – this is my family.

There has been so much trauma and sacrifice. I am so inspired by all my colleagues, including the housekeepers, the therapists, those working in nutrition, the facilities personnel – together, we are making this happen and still providing the best care possible.