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Merit Health nurse forms state’s first Nurse Honor Guard

Law enforcement officers standing at attention and performing other duties at the funeral service of a fellow officer is a regular occurrence. Now, thanks to a nurse at Merit Health in Jackson, other devoted nurses are being afforded the same ceremonial reverence and tributes at their funeral services. Connie Williams, AGACNP-BC, felt members of her profession deserved a similar display of respect at the end of their lives and formed the Mississippi Nurse Honor Guard last year. Starting out with only five nurse volunteers, the organization has grown to 60 members from around the state, with more volunteers added each month.  

     Williams, a 25-year veteran of the nursing profession, first read about a Michigan-based nurse honor guard on Facebook. She loved the idea of honoring fellow nurses that had dedicated their lives to serving others. As a result, she began searching for a Mississippi chapter in which to volunteer her services. Upon learning a chapter did not exist, she decided to start one, enlisting the services of fellow Merit Health Central ER nurse Pam Bogle, nurse practitioners Christine Shirley and Beth McCord, and others in the Jackson area.    

    The support of Laura Knight, chief nursing officer at Merit Health Central, was integral to the honor guard’s creation, Williams said. She approached Knight about forming the group, beginning with Merit Health Central nurses. Knight was instantly on board and continues to support the hospital’s nurses joining so that a greater number of caregivers can be honored at their final services.

     “The nurse honor guard is a wonderful way to officially ‘retire’ our fellow nurses from their nursing duties and thank them for their service,” said Knight. “Honoring those who came before us is such a rewarding experience for members of the honor guard. Connie is to be commended for the time and service she has put forth in bringing this worthwhile project to the state of Mississippi.”  

   Learning a fellow nurse’s mother, a 54-year nursing veteran, was nearing the end of her life in hospice care kicked their plans to start an honor guard into “high gear,” says Williams.

     “I reached out to my friend to let her know about the group we had started and to see if the family would want the ceremony performed at the funeral service for her mom,” Williams said. “She spoke with her siblings and they were very excited to have their mother honored in such a special way. After all, she had dedicated her life to serving others. Having others in her profession recognize and honor this fact would be, they felt, a wonderful, much-deserved tribute during her final services.” 

      The Mississippi Nurse Honor Guard’s first service was held at the funeral service for veteran nurse, Myrna Stinson, on Aug. 31, 2019. Since that time, the group of five volunteers has grown quickly, expanding to over 100 members in chapters in almost every area of the state, which 60 of them in the local area (a complete list of Jackson area honor guard members is attached). 

    Stinson’s daughter also joined the honor guard and wears her mother’s nurse cap and cape to simultaneously honor her mother and others in her profession.

     All total, 21 services have been held by nurses ranging from new nursing school graduates to retired nurses. Williams said there is no set formula for the services performed by the honor guard. Instead, the group’s main priority is to show respect for the departed nurse and bring comfort to family members during their time of loss. 

     The services are performed wearing the traditional white nurse’s uniforms with female members wearing nursing cap and cape. This is to show honor to all the nurses gone before us. White roses are placed on casket or near urn and a Nightingale lamp are lit to show honor and appreciation for being our nursing colleague. The Nightingale tribute and a poem are read. Lastly, the nurse is called to report to duty one last time followed by the ringing of a bell. At that point, the nurse honor guard officially releases them from their nursing duties. These services have been performed at visitation, funeral/memorial service, or at graveside. 

        “Each service has been different and special in its own way,” said Williams. “The families have been so appreciative and thankful for our presence as we honor their loved ones. Most of the services have been attended by nurses and they always relay to us how emotionally moved they were by our ceremony. Even better, they usually ask how they can join us.”

     Williams said her goal is to have a chapter in every part of the state so that no nurse goes unrecognized at the time of his or her death for their service to others. Facebook pages and other outreach efforts that include speaking to nursing students and professional organizations are a few of the ways the group has spread the word about the services offered by the nurse honor guard.                                                                      – more –

        “If you are currently a nurse or have worked in the profession, we all share a common bond and that is the desire to help others,” said Williams. “Being able to honor those in our profession who have dedicated their lives to helping others is one of the most fulfilling and coming from the families, appreciated things you will ever do. I encourage every nurse to get involved in the nurse honor guard, even if it is something you can only do once or twice a year. The appreciation we have received from the families in their time of sadness is heartwarming and something you never forget.”

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