In her line of work, there’s very little that Jenny Hunter hasn’t seen or isn’t prepared for.
Hunter has been a hospice nurse for nine years now. She works for Hospice of the Piedmont, a community-based nonprofit organization which focuses on providing end-of-life care for terminally-ill patients. The organization serves Albemarle, Augusta, Buckingham, Culpeper, Fauquier, Fluvanna, Greene, Louisa, Madison, Nelson, Orange and Rappahannock counties.
A Warrenton resident, Hunter primarily covers the Culpeper, Fauquier and Rappahannock areas. For years now, she’s spent her days going into the homes of patients who have been given a prognosis of six months or less to live, ensuring they receive needed medical care and helping them live out their final days as comfortably as possible.
While the prospect of daily interaction and potentially forming a connection with a terminally-ill patient and their close family members may seem daunting to most, Hunter said she’s always viewed that kind of experience as a gift.
“A lot of people say to me, ‘You must have such a hard job,’” Hunter said. “It sounds odd, but it’s actually a very joyful profession. When a person has been diagnosed with a life-limiting illness, they usually redefine their priorities. A lot of times they decide to live in the present; family members come to gather around them, and it can be a very beautiful time. I feel very privileged to play a small part in that by trying to make them as comfortable as possible.”
Hunter added that she feels she was meant for her career path from the very beginning.
“I believe that in nursing or any other profession, you’re drawn to what God prepares you for,” she said. “For me, wanting to help these people and their families just comes naturally and easily. When it comes down to it, I think a lot of nurses just have a certain proclivity within them that drives them toward their particular area of focus.”
Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, a typical day for Hunter involved visiting anywhere from three to seven patients. In between those visits, she’d spend a lot of time on the phone with their family members, doctors and pharmacies to get everything coordinated in order for them to be as comfortable as possible.
“Like any job, it has its challenges,” she said. “We’re lucky that we have a team that’s very supportive of one another. It’s not just me taking care of a patient; there’s a social worker, home health aide, chaplain, nurse practitioners and our managers. We have a good core group there, and we’re there for each other. That support from my peers is invaluable, especially if I’ve got a particularly challenging case to manage.”
The foremost challenge for Hunter and her colleagues these days is finding the best way possible to provide their patients with high-quality care amid the coronavirus crisis. In a world where human-to-human contact has been scaled back significantly in almost all situations, hospice workers have been forced to make dramatic changes to their modus operandi.
Piedmont CEO Ron Cottrell stressed that the organization’s first priority when the pandemic hit was to remain committed to its patients and their families while ensuring an elevated level of safety was put in place.
“We started by making assurances to the patients, their families and our staff members that we had enough PPE at our disposal to keep everyone safe,” Cottrell said. “Then, it was all about making sure our staff was trained in the proper use and disposal of that PPE.
“I’m proud of how well our staff has adhered to these new guidelines, and I am very happy to report that we haven’t had a single employee come down with [COVID-19],” he added.
For the time being, it’s the home health aides that are doing most of the in-home visits, while Hunter and the nurses step in only when absolutely necessary.
“The biggest change now is that we’re only making in-home visits when a patient passes away and we have to go out to pronounce, or if they have something like wound-care needs,” Hunter said. “Otherwise, the majority of our visits now are through Zoom or telephone calls, unless a patient doesn’t have internet access, in which case we have to see them in person.
“The most valuable team members right now are our home health aides,” she added. “They’re the people that go in and provide the personal care for patients that cannot be done over the phone. They’re on the front lines every day, providing intimate attention with things like incontinence care and bathing. They have to do all of that while wearing full garb—a gown, mask and face shield. That’s not an easy thing to do, because it gets hot and miserable in that stuff. But our patients and their families depend heavily on them, and they go to work every day with a smile on their face and a real dedication to them.”
Cottrell said there’s a popular term for the hospice workers who have their boots on the ground, and that includes Hunter.
“We call them ‘Hospice Heroes,’” he exclaimed. “There’s so much uncertainty with this virus right now, and it takes tremendous courage to go into these unknown situations with the knowledge that you could be exposed to it. Not only are these heroes venturing into the unknown, but they’re doing so while continuing to maximize quality of care and quality of life for our patients.”