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Oklahoma native found life's purpose at death's door

Betty Ferrell is a humble hero from Oklahoma.

Her name may not be familiar but her mission is pure blessing: palliative care, quality of life and hospice.

As a recent speaker, Betty inspired us all at my Esther Women Luncheon series. My friend, Kerry Robertson Kerby, was responsible for getting her here. Kerry was Betty's eighth-grade teacher — that teacher who offered special encouragement and made a difference. Kerry couldn't be prouder. The two have been great friends for decades. And for good reason.

Betty graduated from then Central State University (now University of Central Oklahoma). She began her nursing career in 1977, dedicated to restoring health and making her patients stronger. Her first position was on a newly opened oncology unit at Baptist Medical Center.

But on one of her first evenings working on the oncology unit, she experienced her "Esther" moment. It was late evening and she was caring for an older man who had prostate cancer and was in the final stages of life. Softly, he asked Betty if she could help him. He was desperate for relief from pain. That moment in the quiet dark of night, Betty knew that she was being called to this work ... to help those facing the end of life.

Mark Twain said "Two of the most important days in your life are the day you are born and the day you find out why." That evening of God's calling on Betty's life was 44 years ago. Since then, she has served as a nurse and a researcher, and has been deeply involved in field of palliative care and hospice. She has been a leader in the movement around the world and written 11 books, including the "Oxford Textbook of Palliative Nursing (fifth edition, 2019)."

In 1980, Betty began working with others in Oklahoma to develop hospice care. We needed new and more knowledge of pain, and the care of the dying. She went on to get a master's degree and Ph.D. in nursing. She earned a second master's degree in theology.

For the past 32 years, she has been at the City of Hope Cancer Center in Los Angeles where she is now director of nursing research and education and a professor. Betty continues to learn and teach better ways to help people be effectively cared for during the end of life. The End of Life Nursing Education Consortium program has trained nurses and medical staff throughout America and in over 100 countries.

She urges us all to realize that the end is sacred, just like the beginning. Those hard conversations about that transition is important to families.

Betty has won more awards than I can list. Her daughter is a pulmonologist in California, and lives a few blocks away. She laughs that her grandchildren will have nothing to do with her awards or titles or even books — she's just Nana. And she treasures that.