‘It really did make it possible.’ First graduate of innovative palliative care program grateful for scholarships

Melissa Varner
June 14, 2022
Nicole Sartor receives her sash at the MUSC College of Nursing 2022 convocation

A conversation with a dying woman changed Nicole Sartor’s life.

Nicole was an undergraduate student nurse when she went on her first solo home visit. Her patient was a woman with pancreatic cancer who had chosen not to receive any more treatment. She was still active, and you wouldn’t know she was sick just by looking at her, Nicole said.

Nicole checked the woman’s vital signs; She asked about her appetite, and whether she was in any pain. It took 15 minutes. For the rest of their hour together, she just listened.

“I will always remember sitting on the couch in her home that was built by her great-great grandfather, listening to her talk about how cancer had changed her life, what she hoped for and what she worried about,” Nicole said.

Afterwards, she sat in her car in the woman’s driveway, dumbfounded that what she’d just experienced was a job that she could get paid to do. “It was a sacred moment that changed my life,” she said.

When she went to school for her master’s degree, it was with the goal of becoming a pediatric palliative care nurse practitioner. A pediatric palliative care nurse works with a care team to help support a child and family through their journey with a serious illness. But as Nicole explained, at that time there were no Master of Nursing programs that focused on palliative care. To gain experience, she had to find opportunities to care for children with chronic conditions like cystic fibrosis and cancer.

After earning her master’s, she went on to help build palliative care programs in Honolulu, Hawaii, and at the University of North Carolina Children's Hospital, where she currently works.

Nicole Sartor 
Nicole Sartor

When she decided to pursue her Doctor of Nursing Practice (DNP) degree in 2020, she was excited to learn the Medical University of South Carolina (MUSC) College of Nursing had just been approved to offer the country's first known Doctor of Nursing Practice (DNP) degree with a palliative care concentration.

“My options were: Go to UNC for free or take on a ton of debt to specialize in palliative care at MUSC,” Nicole said.

Nicole was able to say yes to MUSC because of scholarship support. She was a recipient of several scholarships, including the Corinne V. Sade Fund for Palliative Care Education and the Captain Robert Wilkens Care Scholarship.

“I felt really grateful and relief because two of my children were in college,” Nicole said. “Obviously, the priority was on my kids’ undergraduate degrees in terms of finances and our family. Scholarships allowed me to pursue this degree at nearly 50 without wondering, ‘How in the world am I going to pay all this money back?’ It really did make it possible.”

In May 2022, she became the first and only graduate of the new online program. She is hopeful that as it grows, scholarship support will grow with it.

“In order to have a robust program, we need to have robust scholarship activities so that we can recruit people from all over the country,” Nicole said. “As you equip people like me to do this work, your investment will pay off in the lives of countless families who have a sick family member, and I am so thankful for that.”