After 20 years at St Vincent’s Hospital Melbourne, including many years with the Centre for Palliative Care, the Centre’s Education Coordinator Karen Quinn has retired.
Karen has been a dedicated and passionate palliative care nurse and educator, and was grateful to have been able to work with and learn from clinicians and academics from a broad range of services. Her successes include development of postgraduate palliative care courses and the Victorian Palliative Care Nurse Practitioner Collaborative. More recently, Karen has led the Centre for Palliative Care’s education team to deliver a series of successful online Masterclasses and Hot Topic Webinars, ensuring palliative care education opportunities continue to be available for medical professionals across Victoria, Australia and internationally – ultimately benefiting the provision of essential palliative care to patients and their families.
In reflecting upon her career in nursing and education, and her time at St Vincent’s Hospital Melbourne and the Centre for Palliative Care, Karen’s thoughts turned to her first day nursing at St Vincent’s Caritas Christi Hospice in Kew, working on a 30 bed ward, with six patients per room. Even with the cramped conditions and unexpected features such as a bird aviary in the communal family area, she soon settled into the team. Karen recalls, “The sense of collegiality remained strong, and friendships developed that have continued to this day.”
When asked what drew her to palliative care nursing, Karen recalls, “I cared for a lady on a surgical ward who had advanced breast cancer and had intolerable pain in her shoulder. She was offered a complex surgical procedure which she accepted because she was so desperate to have some relief. The lady died within days of the procedure and in great pain. The experience profoundly affected me - there must be a better way. When my family and I then moved to Melbourne, Caritas Christi Hospice was within 15 minutes of where we were living so I decided to phone them and see if there were any positions available. I actually began working there the next week!”
Considering the path her career has taken and what kept her engaged, a theme emerges – Karen has been driven to make connections, support people, and make a difference in their lives. She loved being a nurse, including as a midwife in a small regional hospital delivering hundreds of babies during that 10 year period. “It was the family connection and being able to support them at a critical time in their lives that game me a professional buzz” she recalls. She draws parallels to her palliative care career, “as with all professional relationships, you form a connection based on a shared experience and that builds a shared trust and respect. It really is a privilege to care for a palliative care patient and their family when they are facing the reality of an imminent death.”
In furthering her career, Karen returned to study, and relished connecting with people. She continued this more recently as an educator, connecting in a different way. “Engaging with students individually and learning of their career plans is my way of building a connection. It is the connection in whatever work I do that keeps me engaged and maintaining my sense of humour in life”. Part of Karen’s motivation as an educator has also been learning from students, and those two-way relationships provided valuable experiences across her career. Her career highlights from CPC include building the postgraduate courses, developing the Victorian Palliative Care Nurse Practitioner Collaborative, working with clinicians and academics from a broad range of services, and seeing students who engage with study and continue to challenge themselves.
Karen has some sage advice for nurses at the start of their careers considering a career in palliative care nursing.
Palliative care represents the essence of nursing – caring is at its core and it embraces caring for both the patient and their family. Palliative care offers endless opportunities to choose roles that may be clinical, research or education. The skills acquired in palliative care are transferable and relevant to any care setting. Supporting patients diagnosed with a life limiting illness and then for them to die comfortably with symptoms well managed and with their families involved is the most professionally satisfying experience. My advice for any nurse is to be brave about taking up a new challenge! If something piques your interest, it is worth exploring.
Centre staff were disappointed that we weren’t able to give Karen the retirement party that had been planned due to a COVID-19 lockdown in Melbourne, but we did manage an online gathering to say farewell and reminisce.
Karen has influenced the high standard of palliative care nursing and education for many years, and will leave a legacy that will support provision of quality palliative care for many more years to come. From all the staff at the Centre for Palliative Care, we wish Karen all the best into retirement, and her leadership, compassion and good humour will be greatly missed.