Third Place Nursing Contest Winner: Catherine Purcell, University Health Network

Catherine Purcell

Catherine Purcell, University Health Network

Third Place Winner

On behalf of the Princess Margaret Cancer Centre palliative care team, we would like to nominate one of our palliative care outpatient clinic nurses, Catherine Purcell, for the Hospital News National Nursing Hero Award. Catherine joined the palliative care clinic at the Princess Margaret Cancer Centre in 2004. At the time, the clinic had just started (in borrowed space from the Breast Clinic, although patients with all cancer diagnoses were seen there), and Catherine was the sole RN working with two physicians. Her role was, and still is, to do the initial assessment for new patients and follow-ups, and to provide telephone support to patients and their families in between monthly clinic visits – both for symptom management and for psychosocial support.

Catherine was ideally suited for palliative care, and quickly became not only an expert at managing patients’ symptoms and other problems, but also a passionate advocate for palliative care and its important role in supporting patients and families throughout the disease course. The clinic grew quickly and Catherine often stayed at work long after working hours, following up with patients or their caregivers who left her many voice messages. She saw – and still sees – her role as being to tie together all the loose ends that are inevitably left in the cancer system, to provide holistic interdisciplinary team based care. She embraced the principles of early palliative care being an added layer of support for patients and their families and often independently followed up with others involved in the patient’s care, such as oncologists, community nurses, pharmacists, or family physicians.

Over two decades, the palliative care clinic has evolved substantially. As volumes grew, more physicians and nurses were required to see the patients, and the clinic space evolved to involve not only the Breast Clinic, but also borrowed space on different days in the Brain Clinic, Gynecology Clinic, and Gastrointestinal Clinic. Eventually there were 22 half-day clinics, operating in parallel 5 days weekly, and it became clear that a free-standing palliative care clinic was needed. Catherine was instrumental in planning for this clinic and preparing the proposal. With her vast experience in providing outpatient palliative care, she was able to advocate that patients receiving palliative care had special needs such as low examining tables, accommodation for wheelchair and stretcher access, extra room for interdisciplinary family meetings, and access to oxygen for those who needed it. The freestanding Warren-Connelly Palliative Care Clinic finally opened in 2018 and has become world-renowned for early outpatient oncology palliative care, seeing close to 1500 new patients yearly.

Besides providing exceptional nursing care to thousands of patients and family members over the last 20 years, Catherine is a cherished colleague who is a source of knowledge, wisdom and support for our entire palliative care team. She is never too busy to provide advice or comfort, whether it is to junior nurses, physicians, trainees, or other interdisciplinary colleagues. She has provided important input for hiring committees for many of our existing staff as well as for the improvement of practices in the clinic. She has also been a confidante to many of us on the team, providing gentle advice about maintaining resilience and always having a sense of humour.

In short, Catherine is a true nursing hero who has dedicated her career to the advancement of team based palliative care for patients with advanced cancer and their families. After many years of advocacy and service, Catherine will be retiring in April of this year. However, her impact on the lives of patients, family members, and her palliative care colleagues, as well as on the practice of early palliative care locally and internationally, will continue to endure.

Nominated by:

Jenny Lau, MD, MSc Medical Director, Harold and Shirley Lederman Palliative Care Centre, Princess Margaret Cancer Centre

Breffni Hannon, MBChB, MSc Palliative Care Site Lead, Princess Margaret Cancer Centre

Camilla Zimmermann, MD, PhD Head, Department of Supportive Care, Princess Margaret Cancer Centre Head, Division of Palliative Care, University Health Network