the University of Alabama at Birmingham Hospital
Wendy Walters, LICSW is a clinical ethics consultant with more than 30 years of experience in supporting patients, family members and healthcare professionals
coping with end of life.
She has worked extensively at opposite ends of the spectrum of how people die – from her first 17 years as a hospice social worker, through the past 12 years in the intensive care unit working closely and compassionately with families facing incredibly difficult decisions.
Throughout that time, she has listened to and learned from thousands of stories from dying patients and their families. She has expertly, compassionately and lovingly helped them understand the reality of their difficult situations and cope with painful decision making.
One of the countless examples of Wendy’s impact involved a young, critically ill, post-partum woman, whose newborn daughter was still in the NICU. As the woman’s devastated family struggled to understand and deal with what was happening, Wendy navigated the complex relationships within the family, gained their trust and compassionately pointed them to consider what the young woman would want. At the same time, she was a resource for the hospital staff caring for this patient and her family, helping them work through the experience.
“One must have more than the ability to absorb and handle the emotional outflow of patients and their families. One must have a deep understanding of the human process and the mental acuity each person has to process their surroundings,” said one patient’s father.
A dual focus of providing care and supporting caregivers is a hallmark of Wendy’s. She has pioneered numerous teaching programs, including a monthly lecture to the incoming MICU house staff on how to have compassionate communication in family meetings about end-of-life care, and programs for physician trainees to help them process what they encounter. She has long been known by her peers as a leader and teacher whom colleagues turn to for support.
Two years ago, Wendy made the decision to transition to clinical ethics and recently completed advanced graduate training in clinical ethics.
“Ethics has always been my love and I appreciate that part of the role is to reduce moral distress in the hospital and find ways to build compassion,” she says. As the clinical ethics consultant to the hospital, she now sees more than 200 consults each year.
Reflecting on the impact Wendy had on his family’s experience, one patient’s father said, “One must have more than the ability to absorb and handle the emotional outflow of patients and their families. One must have a deep understanding of the human process and the mental acuity each person has to process their surroundings,” adding that Wendy is just such a person. “Capable, intuitive and intelligent crisis interventionists like Wendy are hard to come by.”