Honor guard salutes nurses for dedication to their profession
By Kim Grizzard
The Daily Reflector
Monday, May 13, 2019
GREENVILLE — Debbie Nelson still can recall the honor guard at her father-in-law’s funeral, the playing of “Taps” and the folding of the American flag in a ceremony befitting a World War II veteran.
But when her husband, John, died last year, there were no military officers in dress blues to pay tribute to him for his service and sacrifice. There were women in white.
They were there to honor one who dedicated his life to caring for others. As members of the Nursing Honor Guard, they consider it a privilege to provide a final salute to their fellow nurses.
“Military, fire, police, they all have a guard,” said Tabatha Hall, a registered nurse and program leader for the Nursing Honor Guard at Vidant Medical Center. “Nurses have guards, too. This is our last way to thank that nurse.”
Launched at Vidant in 2017, the Nursing Honor Guard follows a model that exists in a number of states. Members participate in final services dressed in traditional white uniforms and recite the Florence Nightingale Pledge, named for the founder of modern nursing.
The guard, made up of volunteers, performs such duties as standing by the casket, reciting “A Nurse’s Prayer” and announcing the last roll call for the nurse. Members also present a Nightingale lamp to surviving family members.
“It’s an honor to be able to be part of their service and to do the last roll call and release them from duty,” Hall said. “I don’t think there’s any one of us that have done a service yet that haven’t gotten choked up.
“I think it’s meaningful because, as nurses, we spend most of our lives serving others,” she said. “(This is) to be able to show we appreciated this person and what they’ve dedicated to the profession.”
In a little more than a year, Vidant’s Nursing Honor Guard has grown from 20 volunteers to about 50 and has presided at nine funerals or memorial services.
John Nelson’s was the first. When the 38-year nursing veteran died last year at age 64, the local guard sent two representatives to Myrtle Beach, S.C., to pay their respects.
John’s wife, Debbie, also a nurse, had never heard of Nursing Honor Guard when member Elizabeth Seawell contacted her to offer to have the Nursing Honor Guard participate in a service for John, a former co-worker.
Debbie knew it was something that her husband, whom friends called “Big John,” would have loved. Nursing was such a part of his life that it seemed only fitting that it be part of his celebration of life.
He and Debbie had met in nursing school at Virginia’s Petersburg General Hospital, and John had spent 35 years at Pitt County Memorial Hospital (later Vidant). A member of the original EastCare nursing team, he flew more than 850 missions from 1985 to 1993.
“He was an amazing nurse,” Debbie said of her husband, who stood at 6-foot, 3-inches tall and had long hair and a beard. “He looked like ZZ Top, Willie Nelson and Santa Claus all mixed together.
“You work almost 40 years in nursing. It’s a hard job,” Debbie said. “To have somebody honor you like the military gets honored at their funerals, it was incredible … He would have been blown away, so proud.”
Sherri Crouch, who works in the ambulatory surgical unit at Vidant Beaufort, has been a nurse for 25 years. Her mother, Susan Holbert Respess, had a nursing career that spanned 38 years.
Still, Crouch was not familiar with Nursing Honor Guard until her mother died in January.
“The very first time I’d ever seen the (Nursing Honor Guard) ceremony was at my mother’s service,” Crouch said, adding that having her mother’s career acknowledged in this way helped bring comfort to the family.
“I think it provides a different look into a profession than anything that we’ve ever done before,” Crouch said. “I just think this brings so much value to the job because it’s not just a job. You don’t do this because it’s a job. You nurse because it’s a passion.”
After seeing the effect the Nursing Honor Guard had at her mother’s funeral service, Crouch decided to join the effort as a volunteer. She wants to help give other families what her family received.
“(It) was a lot of pride in our mother and her work, also some closure knowing that she had helped so many people,” she said. “Her service here was done and she wasn’t forgotten. She was well remembered.”