Community | Nursing

In July 2023, the Eastern North Carolina Nurses Honor Guard had the opportunity to participate in a living tribute for a fellow nurse, Janet Broady Farmer. The group of active and retired LPNs, RNs, FNPs and DNPs typically honors nurses throughout eastern North Carolina by attending their funerals or memorial services, but living tributes are a relatively new service that honors a nurse with a terminal illness or dementia. It allows the nurse to be present at his or her service, and it gives family members the opportunity to share and hear stories about their loved one.

“It is heart-touching for the family,” said Deborah Herring, a retired ECU Health nurse and honor guard member.

The national Nurses Honor Guard was initiated by the Kansas State Nurses Association in 2003. The Eastern North Carolina Nurse’s Honor Guard was established in 2017 by Tabatha Hall, assistant manager of nursing in labor resource management and its current president.

The Eastern North Carolina Nurse Honor Guard team poses for a photo.

It was the first honor guard established in North Carolina, but many chapters followed. There are now nine regional chapters and one state chapter, and the Eastern North Carolina chapter serves 24 counties in the state.

During the honor guard funeral services, four or five nurses stand guard wearing their traditional white uniforms with caps and navy blue capes. They perform a ceremony customized for the honoree, but which follows a typical format. First, the Nightingale Tribute is performed. At this time, the Nightingale lamp is lit. Then, the Florence Nightingale pledge is recited; this is the same pledge every nurse recites at his or her graduation.

“It means a lot to nurses because they remember when they recited that pledge,” said Herring.

A poem is then read in which the nurse’s name is used, followed by the nurse’s prayer. The ceremony ends with the nurse’s final call to duty, and the Nightingale lamp is extinguished. This service is offered to the family at no cost.

While she’s participated in several funeral services, Herring said last summer’s living tribute was a first.

“The family wanted a little party with refreshments for the service and a table decorated with awards Ms. Janet had won,” she said. “We did our service, and then the family shared their memories of her and invited her former nurse manager to speak about how dedicated of a nurse she had been.”

Herring said the value of this type of service is that the guard can connect more with the family, and the event is a celebration of that person’s life.

It was all the more meaningful, Herring said, because she knew the nurse being honored.

“It just happened that I used to work with Ms. Janet,” she explained. “And this was back a long time ago. I was an African American woman working as a nurse at the Medical Center and I felt like I had to prove myself.” Herring said Janet pulled her aside one day and said something she never forgot: “She said I was smart and didn’t have to prove that to anyone,” Herring recalled. “She inspired me so much, and during the tribute ceremony I told the family that she was the one who inspired me to become a leader. I later became an assistant head nurse at the Medical Center, I worked as the director of nursing at the Pitt County Health Department and I was on the North Carolina Board of Nursing.”

After the ceremony, the honor guard received a thank you letter from Janet’s daughter. In it, she said, “All of our family and friends were so touched by the heartfelt words and sentiment. Having my mother’s previous coworkers there to speak of her passion and worth ethic was so special. Forty years ago, her memory and personality were so vibrant and full of laughter . . . thank you for brining those memories of her back to the forefront.”

Herring said many people don’t realize the honor guard exists or what services they offer.

“We’re trying to make sure people are aware,” she said. “That’s a big challenge.”

The guard members attend nursing conferences and funeral home conventions, they make visits to regional skilled nursing and assisted living facilities and they are working to get their information published in the North Carolina Board of Nursing newsletters. On May 6, the guard will host a booth at the Nurse and Well-Being Fair from 7 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. in the Medical Center’s cafeteria, where more people can learn about the guard and its services. It’s important to honor nurses in this way, Herring said, the same as one in the military, police or fire department might be honored.

“It upholds the profession to know that the service rendered by a nurse is valuable,” she said. “It’s your health being protected by the nurse, and you want to honor them for that.”