Over the summer, nursing students Lucy Schneider and Caitlin Lach visited UF Health Shands Hospital every week with a bag of shawls, each one knit by hand, to comfort a patient. By the end of the summer, they’d given 80 shawls to patients and their families receiving care from the UF Health Shands Palliative Care Program. But they received so much more in return, say the students, who are part of the college’s Comfort Shawl Project.
“It’s teaching me so much about communications, not only with other health providers, but also with patients and families,” Schneider said. “From an emotional perspective, I have learned how culture and spiritual needs matter. Being involved in these tough experiences of pain and death will shape how I practice.”
Toni Glover, Ph.D., GNP-BC, ACHPN, an assistant professor of nursing, started the project in 2014 after reading about a similar program. A researcher focused on aging, pain and palliative care, Glover was interested in creating more ways for students to experience working with patients receiving palliative care.
“You can teach nurses about death and dying in a didactic way, but it is so different when you care for a dying patient,” she said. “These experiences cannot be taught in a book.”
Since its inception, the Comfort Shawl Project has given a small group of students an immersive view into palliative care each year. The students partner closely with UF Health’s Palliative Care Team, taking part in daily meetings, where the team helps select patients to receive the shawls. The students then meet with the patients and help them pick out a shawl, which are all unique. About 100 volunteers throughout the community knit the shawls provided to patients, Glover said.
“Sometimes nursing education is so much about skills, we don’t focus on how important it is to make a therapeutic alliance with patients,” Glover said.
“When students gift the shawls, they don’t have to do anything but be present and to communicate with patients.”
Schneider remembers walking into a room where the patient was unresponsive, but the family was there. She and Lach explained to the family who they were and offered to let them pick out a shawl for their loved one.
“Immediately one of the family members started crying. It really meant something to her,” she said. “It felt just amazing to be a part of this and sit down and make them feel good, to give them a distraction.”
Glover and her team are studying what students learn from the experience and she hopes to eventually find ways to create opportunities for more students to get similar experiences.
“The results are encouraging,” she said. “This project is making students feel more at ease with death and dying and helping patients with that.”
Last year Glover and Jeannie P. Cimiotti, Ph.D., R.N., FAAN, an associate professor of nursing and the Dorothy M. Smith Endowed Chair and director of the Florida Blue Center for Health Care Quality, led a course for UF Honors students about end-of-life, advance care planning and the differences between palliative and hospice care. The course was popular and they ended up with almost twice as many students as planned.
“Eventually, this may be a course we could do for all nursing students,” she said. “It would be a way to discuss palliative care and end of life with the whole class.”