Florence Wald: Advocate for the Terminally Ill, Founder of American Hospice

Florence Wald: Advocate for the Terminally Ill, Founder of American Hospice

During April of the Year of the Nurse, we’re honored to introduce Florence Wald (1917-2008), the person responsible for the hospice movement in the United States. Born Florence Schorske, Wald established the first American hospice in 1974 in Branford, Connecticut, just outside of New Haven, and helped contribute to the reform movement. She believed in treating patients with terminal illnesses with dignity and respect and putting them and their families at the center of their care.

Influenced by Her Own Health Challenges

Wald was born in the Bronx, New York, and was hospitalized often as a child for a respiratory ailment. She went into nursing as a young woman and earned a bachelor’s from Mount Holyoke College and an MSN from Yale University. She became a research technician for the Army Signal Corps during World War II before starting her nursing career at the New York Visiting Nursing Service (founded by another one of America’s great nursing pioneer’s, Lillian Wald). Then, Wald went on to earn a second master’s degree in mental health nursing from Yale (1956) and began teaching in the program. In 1958, she was appointed as dean of the school of nursing. She married Henry Wald, whom she had dated during her time working in the Army Signal Corps (but had lost touch with) the next year.

The Lecture that Changed Her Life

In 1963, Wald attended a lecture at Yale by Cicely Saunders, a physician from England who was planning to open the world’s first hospice outside of London, St. Christopher’s Hospice. Wald wrote, “She made an indelible impression on me, for until then I had thought nurses were the only people troubled by how a terminal illness was treated,” Wald got to work right away after hearing Saunders’s lecture and started her efforts at Yale. She worked to change nursing education to focus more holistically on patients and their families.

Connecticut Hospice in Branford

In 1967, Wald stepped down as dean (continuing to serve as faculty in the Yale School of Nursing) so she could turn her attention to founding the first American hospice. She spent a month at St. Christopher’s Hospice in London and returned to form a team of other nurses, doctors and clergy here in the United States. In 1974, Wald and her team founded Connecticut Hospice.

Today, Connecticut Hospice continues to uphold the founding principles that Wald considered so important, encompassing home and inpatient care for those with terminal illnesses with a limited prognosis. Their goal is to enable patients to live as completely as possible, and they support the entire family, not just the patient.

Spreading Her Influence Elsewhere

Wald got involved in other organizations later in her life, including the National Prison Hospice Association. She served on the board of directors and worked to make hospice care available to people who are incarcerated, first bringing hospice to prisons in the state of Connecticut. Wald was inducted into the National Women’s Hall of Fame in 1998. She received honorary doctorates from Mt. Holyoke College, Yale University and the University of Bridgeport.

Lauren Stehling, director of American Sentinel’s Nurse Practitioner program, says that nurse leaders like Florence Wald paved the way for quality clinical practice. “The concept of palliative care in the U.S. originated with Florence Wald and certainly applies to terminally ill patients, but it is a philosophy that nursing educators now integrate into all nursing programs,” says Dr. Stehling, who also works in hospice. “It is a privilege as a Hospice Nurse Practitioner to assist patients and their families to navigate their terminal illnesses by providing essential quality-of-life measures through physical and emotional support services. When dealing with end-of-life issues, it is imperative that all patients are afforded a peaceful, pain-free, and dignified passing. Florence Wald championed this type of care and provided hope to patients who often feel hopeless.”

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