Lessons in Compassion, Faith, and Healing: The life of a nurse

When I sat down to talk to Shirley Davis, she reminded me a bit of Peter Pan; living a life of adventure, exploring new challenges, and caring for those when they feel lost. Even through the phone, her energy and love of life that had been described by her coworkers and patients was contagious.

The following captures only a glimmer of the compassion, love, and ambition of what it means to be a nurse going above and beyond the call of care.

Where do I begin to describe the extraordinary oncology nurses who have touched my life this year? I am going to tell you about one of these special healers who, on the very first day she was assigned to administer my chemo, touched my soul.

Of all the job duties and qualifications that an oncology nurse has, there is one that isn’t on any mandatory list. But it is written on the heart of these nurses and is the “rock” of their healing and nurturing talents. Tools of the trade include nursing skills and healing knowledge, medications, the latest in cancer treatment news, and in some cases, being able to read the doctor’s minds.

In the midst of all these skills and knowledge, there is a gift that these angels of healing have -a special cure gene that is deep seated in their heart. It is not seen on any x-rays or felt by the human hand, it is a “spirit” all its own. It is felt in the patients’ heart, mind and soul – a gift like NO other, given by these nurse angels.
–May “sissy” Graham Smith, patient of Shirley Davis, RN

These were just a few of the many words I read recommending Shirley Davis as a PESI dedicated nurse. I knew from the kind words of patients and colleagues that this nurse was special, but nothing could have prepared me for her love and compassion.

When I sat down to talk to Shirley Davis, she reminded me a bit of Peter Pan; living a life of adventure, exploring new challenges, and caring for those when they feel lost. Even through the phone, her energy and love of life that had been described by her coworkers and patients was contagious.

The following captures only a glimmer of the compassion, love, and ambition of what it means to be a nurse going above and beyond the call of care.


On Becoming a Nurse
Davis was drawn to nursing later in life.

“I have an associate’s degree in computer robotics. It’s never been any use. I didn’t discover nursing until I started working as an activities director for a nursing home. I fell in love with the residents there and working with them. One day it just clicked that nursing was my calling.”

Davis began working full time during the day and taking classes at night to get through her degree. In 2006, at the age of 42, she became a Registered Nurse.

“My sons were really excited for me when I graduated. I was, at one time, a single mother who worked two jobs to survive. There had been some tough times, but we got through things.”

Starting as an RN in Cardiac, Davis had a love of open heart surgery. She never imagined leaving the unit, but at the coaxing of a friend, she applied for a position in oncology.

“Working in oncology has been extremely humbling, especially about the gift of life. The age is so young with cancer. I love to just be with my patients; to cry with them, to laugh with them, or to pray with them.”

Faith and the Cancer Journey
When patients walk through the door at Wellmont Cancer Institute, there are many emotions: Fear of the unknown, sadness, anger, and confusion can all bubble to the surface. But shortly after they enter the doors, patients begin to feel the uplifting atmosphere created by the staff.

“Faith keeps this place going with all the heartache,” Jessica Bembry, RN, said. “You can feel Shirley’s love throughout this whole clinic. Everyone knows her here, and they know how strong her faith is. She shares her faith with our patients and is very inspiring to those around her.”

Prayer and faith define Davis as a caregiver. In a unit that copes with death every day, her faith helps guide her through the roller coaster of emotions that comes with cancer treatment.

Davis says, “My patients have taught me so much about faith. When I talk to them and ask them how they do it, all of them tell me it’s God.”

On Everlasting Love
“When patients come in and they’ve been husband and wife for so many years, you know they’re two peas in a pod. You see it in their eyes, and they know that they’re going to lose their love. That’s hard,” Davis explains.

Recently, Davis had the opportunity to care for a couple who were coming to the end of their cancer journey. A patient with pancreatic cancer was about to enter hospice care. He sat in Shirley’s chair and told her how he and his wife wanted to go to the beach. Davis knew she had to make it happen.

Using her personal funds, Davis arranged for the couple to spend a long weekend in Hilton Head. “He has since passed on, but I would do this every day if I could.”

On Being a Coach
Patient May “Sissy” Graham Smith knows first-hand that Davis’ works around the clock. She writes…

She (Davis) has also added coach to her job description with me as she has taken on advising me about nutrition, building up my strength, etc. She emails or messages me (Most times late at night after she gets home from work) asking what I’ve eaten, or telling me to try this or that. I had to take a two week break from chemo due to potassium problems and severe nausea. My off time was spent trying to gain weight and get stronger. I don’t need to tell you who called or wrote to check on me every day. With her coaching and my determined attitude, I went from 93 pounds to 101.4.

Davis notes that when you become a nurse, you take on a role that needs to bring spiritual, physical, nutritional, and holistic approaches together with modern medicine.

On Loving Your Job
Davis notes that she’s lucky because she loves coming to work. Even in a field where grief comes daily, she enters the center with high energy and hope every day.

“When you’re a nurse, you have to work as a team and be on the same pages as your fellow nurses. Being an oncology nurse isn’t a job; it’s a calling and a passion. We’re here for our patients for all the highs and lows they’re experiencing.”

On the Future
Davis is currently working on completing her BSN. She’s excited to be done in April, but more excited to continue her education to become a Nurse Practitioner.

“I enjoy volunteering and helping people. My faith also plays a strong role in my caregiving. I look forward to working on mission trips in the future where I can help patients heal both physically and spiritually. There’s such a need for healthcare in both our rural community and communities abroad.”


In my time speaking with Shirley Davis, it became clear that she exemplifies what it means to be a nurse. Her desire to continue her nursing education, her love for her patients, and her devotion to improving the world around her, make a shining example of what it means to go above and beyond the call of care.

Contributed by PESI Social Correspondent Josie Salzman.


Attachment-1Shirley Davis, R.N., has a passion for life. When she’s not caring for her patients, you may find her mountain biking and taking in nature. For Shirley’s role as on oncology nurse, PESI recognizes her as a dedicated nurse.


Do you know a nurse who deserves recognition for going above and beyond the call of care? Tell us about it.


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