Every life has a story to tell. One of the great tragedies of human existence is that most of these stories go untold. Some of us wear our experiences on our faces, while for others their life’s work reflects the events that shaped them. Put Michelle Salisbury R.N., a nurse here at Chautauqua Hospice and Palliative Care (CHPC) for more than a decade, into this latter category. Her blend of life experiences, and a sincere desire to help others, has allowed her to not only build a career, but witness poignant pieces of human experience.
In 2011, Michelle joined CHPC as an on-call nurse, meaning she took calls after hours, at night, and on weekends. If you called outside banker’s hours, you probably spoke to Michelle. On-call is an essential hospice and palliative care service, providing support to patients and caregivers according to their needs. And Michelle has a tremendous grasp of patient needs.
Before coming to CHPC, Michelle worked as a nurse in maternity and pediatrics, taking care of mothers and babies. This often surprises people who see her as ‘hospice nurse.’ “I tell them I started in maternity and pediatrics and they say something like ‘oh my goodness, that’s a complete 180!’” For Michelle though, there’s an obvious connection working with patients at the beginning of their life, and at the end. “I was there for a whole lot of firsts, and a whole lot of lasts,” she says. “They’re all equally important to me.”
During her time at hospice, Michelle has had occasion to put all these skills to use leading the pediatric palliative and hospice programs. There is simply no way to do a job like this without compassion, understanding, and empathy. Whether welcoming a child into the world, or providing care as one passes, empathy is the consistent theme for Michelle. She comes by it naturally.
Before becoming a nurse, Michelle considered a career in social work. Growing up, she had a sister, 12 years younger than her, who was frequently sick. Beginning when her sister was only two, Michelle often went to doctor’s appointments in Buffalo and Pittsburgh with her. She saw the effect that gentle and caring nurses had. “I was in high school and college, and seeing the impact their kind words had on her, on my parents, it made such a difference,” says Michelle. “That made me want to become a nurse.”
This lived experience follows Michelle every day, shaping her approach to nursing. She’s never forgotten how impactful honest positivity and a good attitude can be to successful patient care. It’s what motivates her today, striving to be a positive influence on patients and their families. To make each interaction as thoughtful and supportive as possible. “It’s really important to meet people where they are,” says Michelle. “My goal is to make sure everybody I come into contact with is a little better off than when we started.”
Working with patients at such critical times in their lives has also impacted Michelle’s personal life. She focuses on what’s truly important and doesn’t sweat the small stuff. And when Michelle’s not working she’s probably listening to music. Probably the Dave Matthews Band. She fell in love with the band in high school and has since seen them live more than 40 times. “I saw them my senior year of high school,” says Michelle. “I instantly fell in love with their music.”
Whether it’s through answering questions, being kind, or simply listening, Michelle’s dedication to helping each patient with their individual needs endures. And she never loses sight of her goal to make each interaction count. “I always say, you don’t work for hospice unless you really want to work for hospice.”
The world needs people who act—who see a problem and work to solve it. In his song Gaucho, Dave Matthews writes “We gotta do much more than believe if we wanna see the world change.” It’s an uplifting sentiment, and underlines our need for problem solvers, people who choose to make a difference. It seems Michelle has taken those lyrics to heart.