Lessons in Compassion: Kate Ford Roberts, Palliative Care Nurse

Kate Ford Roberts, Palliative Care nurse, will receive the Distinguished Nursing Practice award for the outstanding care she has provided for 35 years.In 2015, it is estimated that almost 600,000 people will die of cancer in the United States, 11,500 in Wisconsin alone. It takes a special kind of person to work with seriously ill patients and their families on a day-to-day basis. Care, compassion and a good sense of humor are daily requirements. Yet Kate Roberts, MA, BSN, RN, CHPN, a nurse in the UW Health Palliative Care Program, has done it her entire career.


In February, Roberts will be recognized for demonstrating these qualities each and every day. At a national meeting of the Hospice and Palliative Nurses Association in Philadelphia, PA, Roberts will be lauded for 35 years of work in the field with the Distinguished Nursing Practice award. For Roberts, it's validation and a source of pride, but more importantly, the award is an endorsement of a vocation she's had a direct hand in shaping.


When Roberts graduated from nursing school in 1978, she wanted to help patients and families feel more at ease about making tough decisions about death and dying. At the time, care for patients in their last months of life was not practiced with the same intention as today. Strict hospital visiting hours and other rules kept families away from their loved ones at critical times.


"That didn't sit right with me," says Roberts, who decided to become part of a movement to make patients and families the focus of care rather than the disease or its symptoms. So she partnered with other community activists to open HospiceCare, Inc. in Madison, now known as Agrace. It was one of the first hospices to open in Wisconsin.


"At that time, our goal was to give people a safe place outside the hospital to live their last days with family," says Roberts.


While volunteering days with HospiceCare, Roberts spent her nights honing her skills as a nurse at UW Health. Since then, she's worked with Gunderson Funeral Homes to provide bereavement support for families dealing with loss, all the while engaging in another aspect of the vocation she so values – teaching other health care providers to do the same.


In 1999, Roberts was on the ground floor of another change in care for the seriously ill – the UW Health palliative care program, which focuses on providing patients with relief from symptoms, pain and stress of serious illness, whatever the diagnosis. The palliative care team consists of doctors, nurses, pharmacists, chaplains and social workers, so that any kind of pain – physical, mental or spiritual – is addressed.


"Someone might be receiving a variety of treatments in our care, but who wants to go home from the hospital," Roberts notes. "It's as much about giving someone the best quality of life possible, by considering how they want to spend it."


As she prepares to receive a national award for her work, Roberts reflects on the gratitude she has for the people she serves. "Sometimes I'm just really moved when I see a patient look to his family and tell them he loves them," she says. "I thank them for being open with me and with them."


And it's that gratitude that Roberts will get to receive in February, as she receives the highest recognition in her profession.