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With care and honor

Local honor guard memorializes nurses for lives spent in service to others

Courtesy photo / Members of the Central Pennsylvania Nurses Honor Guard from left are Karen McGraw, Missy Mulhern, Cindy Bowman, Julie Decker, Robin deKoning and Wanda Shaffer. The all-volunteer organization performs memorial services for RNs and LPNs in the area.

Once a nurse, always a nurse, local nurses say, and a new, local organization, the Central Pennsylvania Nurses Honor Guard, provides a memorial service that recognizes a life spent caring for others.

Active since November, the guard has honored six late colleagues as of June 30, said founder Cindy Bowman, a Penn State Altoona nursing instructor and a member of the Altoona/Mercy Hospitals Schools of Nursing Alumni Association. The new honor guard has 12 members.

There are only five such honor guards in Pennsylvania and 150 nationwide, according to Julie Murray, the national coordinator and founder of the National Nurses Honor Guard Coalition

A nurse’s compassionate caring continues after retirement as relatives, friends and neighbors ask about a rash, a medication or for a recommendation when a new physician is needed, said Pam Dennis, a nurse from Roaring Spring, who fulfilled her late mother’s wish to have the honor guard at her funeral in June.

Her mother, Lauretta Beryle McClelland, 83, spent most of her 30-year nursing career caring for babies in the Altoona Hospital nursery, Dennis said. Known as Beryle, she graduated from the Altoona Hospital School of Nursing in 1960. While Pam’s older sister pursued a career in teaching, Pam graduated from AHSON in 1984 and her sister, Dana James, of East Freedom graduated in 1992.

Pam’s daughter, and Beryl’s granddaughter, Amanda Dennis graduated from Conemaugh Memorial Medical Center School of Nursing on June 27.

“Even though mom had been retired for 30 years, she would still get questions,” Pam said. “‘What’s this mark on my arm?’ ‘Is this medication OK?’ My niece had a baby that wasn’t eating properly so she took the baby to see my mother who said the bottle nipple wasn’t the right size. Once a nurse, you’re always a nurse.”

“There wasn’t a dry eye at the service,” Pam said, adding a portion of the service includes releasing the late nurse from her duties. “They each said something about my mom and shared a memory. … Mom found nursing to be a very rewarding career. I never heard her complain about going to work.”

“It was like the chapter closed and she had completed it just as she completed her life. It was closure. We each got a Nightingale lamp. I have mine from nurse’s training and now this one is beside it.”

The honor guard performed the service in January for nurse Carolyn Bordell, wife of Duane Bordell of Altoona. Carolyn, a 1961 graduate of the Altoona Hospital School of Nursing, served as an Altoona Hospital nurse for 42 years until her retirement in 2002 as nurse manager of the outpatient surgery.

“It was truly an honor to have them (at Carolyn’s memorial service). The nurses’ prayer that they read and the memento they presented were very inspirational. Seeing them in their nursing apparel brought back a lot of good memories,” Bordell said.

Honor guard members dress in traditional white nurses uniforms, wear the traditional nursing cap and a navy blue cape lined in red. Honor guard members are all volunteers, pay for their own capes and nursing whites. The nursing cap is provided by the group as a token of appreciation.

The honor guard’s purpose is similar to those for first responders such as firefighters and police officers.

Bowman was inspired to start the group after seeing a social media post by Murray. Murray, a retired nurse from Michigan, assists new groups, like the Central PA Honor Guard, who are autonomous. The concept is growing, she said. “Almost everyday I get an email from someone who wants to get a group started.” Hawaii and Alaska are the only states without an honor guard organization.

The all-volunteer guard members help begin the healing process for grieving family members and recognize the sacrifices made by the family during a nurse’s career.

“Our families are proud of us and they’ve lived with our crazy schedules, missed holidays,” Murray said in a telephone interview. “The ceremony brings honor to what they did. It helps the nurses who provide the service by bringing back dignity and respect to their service. Nurses have been beaten up by the pandemic and staffing crisis. It helps us remember why we do what we do.”

Melissa “Missy” Mulhern, president of the local nurses alumni association, said “being able to assist Cindy in her vision of establishing an honor guard was a no brainer. Her idea fits perfectly into our dedication to the nursing profession. By participating in the services, I am so very honored to acknowledge the services and sacrifices of our colleagues because I know first hand what is involved in caring for our patients.

“When we officially relieve the nurse of his/her duties, it is such a heartwarming and soul-felt emotion to formally say goodbye and to thank them for their services,” she said. “I am beyond honored to belong to this group.”

If the family of a deceased LPN or registered nurse would like to have the honor guard at a memorial service, contact with Bowman can be made through the group’s Facebook page, or through a funeral director. The honor guard’s services are free of charge. The organization received startup money from the UPMC Altoona Foundation and the alumni association, Bowman said.

The service is customized to a family’s wishes but generally includes honor guard member processing to the front of the room with a Nightingale lamp and a single burning candle. Honor guard participants usually number four or five, Bowman said, and recite The Nurses Prayer, the Nightingale Tribute and speak of the fallen nurses service. A white rose is laid on the casket or next to the urn, which symbolizes the nurse’s dedication to the profession.

A final roll call is given, in which the decedent’s name is called three times, each accompanied by the ringing of a triangle or bell, and the nurse is officially released from her/his nursing duties. The lit Nightingale lamp is extinguished and presented to a family member.

“It’s a very brief 15 minutes but it’s very moving,” said honor guard volunteer Donna Detwiler, who retired from nursing after 42 years in 2013, to care for her late husband, Ron, who was also a nurse. She wishes the honor guard had been available to her when he died seven years ago.

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