Michele Williams has learned from nearly 35 years of experience that being an excellent nurse involves more than clinical skills. In fact, she says, “A nurse’s primary role is to be a patient advocate.”

In her view, a nurse who is a strong patient advocate must be an active listener and effective communicator. And in today’s complicated healthcare environment, a nurse also serves as a navigator, helping patients deal with multiple physicians and an array of healthcare options.

Williams has filled all these roles during her career with Shore Health System on Maryland’s Eastern Shore, where she began as a licensed practical nurse soon after graduation from high school. Williams later became a registered nurse working primarily with oncology patients, earning a nursing diploma, a BSN, and a master’s degree in nursing education along the way. Today, she is a pain and palliative care specialist for the three-hospital healthcare system and clinical coordinator for its pain and palliative care program.

“A lot of the patients and families I work with are working through the immediacy of the dying process and cannot advocate for themselves. I help them understand the medical options and alternatives in terminology they understand, helping them to make a more informed decision about the care they wish to receive,” says Williams. “A nurse is a teacher and educator (even if we don’t always think of ourselves that way), but we are also human beings who understand the love and strength required to allow patients the quality of life they have fought so hard to attain.”

To continue to grow in her profession, Williams recently became a Walden University doctoral student. The first to be awarded Walden’s full-tuition Nurses of the Year Scholarship for the Doctor of Nursing Practice (DNP) program, she began classes last December.

“The experience has already helped me recognize the importance of evidence-based practice and increased my knowledge of how to interpret data,” says Williams, whose scholarship made it financially feasible to pursue the degree that will become the standard for new nurse practitioners in 2015. Though she’d be exempted from this requirement, Williams wanted to be as well qualified as possible for her patients.

Williams will be able to apply what she’s learning in the DNP program to Shore Health System’s effort to create a system-wide model of inpatient and outpatient palliative care services. She is helping to shape services that focus on curing a physical illness while also preparing patients and their families for the emotional and psychological stressors associated with the diagnosis.

As a longtime oncology nurse, Williams knows that families can be blindsided by a patient’s diagnosis or decline. When patients are suffering and families are distraught, it’s her responsibility to discuss their options. She explains, “You want a patient to have a good quality of life. It’s not always best to prolong life. I have to be up front and honest with patients and their families and let them know that there is such a thing as a peaceful death.”

Those difficult conversations about end-of-life care were a rarity when Williams first became a nurse. But that’s far from the only change affecting her profession and patients’ health outcomes.

“Technology lets patients access so much more information quicker than they could years ago. Before, they had to rely on what the physician told them; now, they can find out about treatment options all over the country,” says Williams. “Clinical trials research has also come a long way, making a difference in how we treat cancer. They’ve brought about best practices and given us the means to find new drugs to treat cancer, opening so many more treatment options and safer, better medicines.”

In recognition of National Nurses Week (May 6–12), and to help nurses worldwide make a greater impact in their organizations and their field, Walden University is offering nine nursing scholarships totaling more than $200,000.

Three full-tuition and six $10,000 Nurses of the Year Scholarships will be awarded to registered nurses who are making a positive difference in the lives of their patients, their organizations, and the future of nursing. For more information, visit www.WaldenU.edu/nursing.

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