Profiles in Nursing

Virginia Barckley and Oncology Nursing

This can-do nurse wrote books, published articles, and loved serving patients bedside.

By Elizabeth Hanink, RN, PHN, BSN
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Profiles in NursingBefore there was radiation or chemotherapy, the whole approach to cancer therapy began and ended with surgery. Sometimes that worked, but often times, it didn’t. Almost as bad, many manifestations of the disease carried a stigma and were not discussed. Just as frequently, doctors did not disclose the diagnosis to patients. As Virginia Barckley, RN, observed at the time, “few other illnesses combine so tragically the wearing qualities of a long illness with the tearing qualities of an acute one.”

Caring for these patients was hard and depressing. Nurse-administered chemotherapy, routine today, was science fiction then. Pain control remained primitive. During the 1940s, visiting nurses, including Barckley, saw many patients at home. Their short, intermittent stops were, due to necessity, task-oriented: dressings, colostomies, and irrigations.

As an American Cancer Society (ACS) volunteer, Barckley realized nurses were a unique resource for cancer sufferers; conversely, cancer care had much to offer nurses. In her mind, “cancer is surgery, it is pediatrics, it is obstetrics, it is rehabilitation.” Following her own advice of always doing more than had to be done, she decided to make a difference. It was her spirit of positive action that led to a new nursing specialty: oncology nursing. In 1961, the ACS honored her with its Citation of Merit.

After obtaining a Masters degree in Mental Health Nursing from Catholic University of America, Barckley worked at a variety of jobs, including head nurse and public health coordinator. In 1962, she joined the ACS staff as National Nurse Consultant, a post she held for 18 years, until her retirement. During this period, she made her most significant contributions. She traveled to all 50 states and became a prolific author. Many of her articles for the American Journal of Nursing have a timeless quality about them. She discussed, for instance, the simplicity, mutuality, and old-fashioned courtesy that constitute good nursing support in any era.

As a member of Sigma Theta Tau, the international nursing honor society, she encouraged research directed specifically for oncology nursing. Her book, Cancer Nursing, Information and Concepts, enjoyed an international reputation, and she was a contributor to the ACS perennial, A Cancer Source Book for Nurses. Along with her colleague Renilda Hilkemeyer, she developed a work study program for students that gave them clinical experience at leading cancer institutes.

Other programs targeted the care of oncology patients in skilled care facilities and, at a time when visits cost from $3 to $6, home care. As an educator, she laid the foundational guidelines for a Masters degree with a specialty in oncology nursing, and putting her money where her mouth was, she saw to the provision of ACS scholarship funding to prepare interested nurses at the graduate level.

Barckley could quote the philosopher Plutarch, Krishna in the Indian Holy Book, and write plays. In 1974, she wrote the script to the award-winning documentary, The Nursing Management of Children with Cancer. As a “can do” person, she once fed herself on $1.18 a day to show herself and others the plight of the elderly poor. That particular report went into the premier issue of Geriatric Nursing.

In 1974, she and Hilkemeyer organized a national conference on cancer nursing. Having expected 100, they were stunned to see 2,500 registered for this first ever event. Over time, participants at this meeting formed the Oncology Nursing Society. Barckley served on its advisory board. In 1981, she became the first honorary member of the Association of Pediatric Oncology Nurses.

Virginia Barckley died quietly in her own home in 1993. Before she died, the International Society of Nurses in Cancer Care recognized her with its Distinguished Merit Award, and the Sloan Kettering Cancer Center presented her their Centennial Medal for Lifelong Achievement.

Elizabeth Hanink, RN, PHN, BSN is a freelance writer with extensive hospital and community-based nursing experience.

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