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When her ONS (Oncology Nursing Society) peers speak of Nurse of the Week Betty Ferrell, PhD, MA, CHPN, FAAN, FPCN, they use the kinds of phrases that populate the fondest of fond mothers’ secret daydreams. But oncology nurses are not here to play around, so when you hear them state that Ferrell’s influence has “improved the quality of life for millions,” or describe her as “truly a legend,” it’s a good idea to sit up and take notice.
At this week’s Oncology Nursing Society (ONS) Congress, the ONS Board of Directors tapped Dr. Ferrell for their 2021 Lifetime Achievement Award and paid tribute to her four decades of advancing the field of oncology nursing as a nurse scientist and researcher. (She has received over $50 million in grant money as a principal investigator). ONS President Nancy Houlihan, MA, RN, AOCN® said, “Betty Ferrell’s career-long contributions to palliative care and cancer survivorship are ingrained in the core of oncology nursing practice. Her influence has improved the quality of life for millions with cancer across the globe.” Houlihan added, “She is truly a legend to oncology nurses for guiding our commitment to the ongoing needs of patients with cancer, and no one is more deserving of the ONS Lifetime Achievement award than she is.”
Ferrell is by no means finished with her achievements, though. As the ONS notes, she is director of nursing research and education at City of Hope, a California center for the study and treatment of cancer, diabetes, and other life-threatening diseases, and principal investigator of the End-of-Life Nursing Education Consortium (ELNEC) project, which has trained more than one million nurses and other clinicians in 100 countries and all 50 states on palliative and end-of-life care. Ferrell has also gained international prominence as a lecturer and a significant contributor to scholarly research articles in the field of oncology nursing.
Ferrell embarked on her career in 1977 as a staff nurse in a 40-bed oncology unit. She was disturbed by the imbalanced focus on cure and treatment evolution rather than patient quality of life. Her pivotal experience, Ferrell told the American Society of Clinical Oncology (ASCO), set the course of her career:
“Here was this man who was so vulnerable, so frail, and in such pain that he could hardly speak. He gently asked me: ‘Please is there anything?’ He wasn’t demanding, he wasn’t angry, he was so desperate for help. And I remember, that moment was when I knew this is my calling. I have to do something to help people like him get better pain control.”
Ferrell proceeded to seek ways to improve pain management for cancer patients, explore the hospice care model and take part in the development of the early stages of the holistic, palliative care specialty. After earning a Ph.D. in nursing focusing on palliative care, in 1989 Ferrell became a nurse scientist in oncology at City of Hope, where she remains.
In addition to her ONS Lifetime Achievement Award, Dr. Ferrell’s other honors include numerous lectureship awards, induction as a fellow in the American Academy of Nursing, membership of the National Academy of Medicine, the ASCO Walther Cancer Foundation Palliative and Supportive Care Award, and the Sigma Theta Tau Episteme Laureate Award.