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Reflections on the Extraordinary Life of Norma N. Gill-Thompson, ET

Guest Editorial

Reflections on the Extraordinary Life of Norma N. Gill-Thompson, ET

Introduction

In June 1986, I was a relatively new certified enterostomal therapy (ET) nurse. I was standing in line for an industry-sponsored lunch at my first International Association of Enterostomal Therapy (now the Wound, Ostomy, and Continence Nurses Society) meeting at Caesar’s Palace in Las Vegas, NV, when someone around me said, “Look, there’s Norma Gill!” Sure enough, she was a few spots ahead of me in line. I got so excited—it felt like I was in the presence of Florence Nightingale! I went over and introduced myself as a new ET nurse, saying how honored I was to meet her. In her down-home, humble way, she threw her arm around my shoulder and said, “Honey, come sit next to me at lunch.” So began my long and special relationship with this extraordinary pioneer of ET/wound ostomy continence (WOC) nursing. Her initial embrace of me–a new ET–reflected her enduring love for and commitment to ETs and ET nursing. Her lifelong mission and passion were to make sure that patients with an ostomy (and then wounds and continence concerns were added) had access to educated and competent health care professionals.

Life and Work: A Brief Overview

Born in Akron, OH, on June 26, 1920, Norma Gill married at 18 after graduating high school and subsequently had 3 children. At age 28, she began to have serious complications (including severe leg ulcerations) of what was finally diagnosed as ulcerative colitis. In 1955, at age 34, she underwent ileostomy surgery (abdominal perineal resection, total colectomy, and end ileostomy) at the Cleveland Clinic Foundation, performed by the Chief of Colorectal Surgery Rupert B. Turnbull, Jr, MD.1 By 1958, Gill had made a miraculous recovery.

Turnbull realized that he could perform this relatively new ostomy surgery, but who would help patients cope with life with a stoma? In 1958, Turnbull envisioned the role of a person who would help with the rehabilitation of these patients; he coined the term “enterostomal therapist” and offered Gill a full-time position at the Cleveland Clinic as the world’s first ET.2 In 1961, they opened the first school of ET at the Cleveland Clinic.3 The first students were patients, family members, and a few health care professionals. Turnbull and Gill often are referred to as the Father and Mother of Enterostomal Therapy.2,3 

In addition, Gill was a key player in founding the American Association of Enterostomal Therapy in 1968. This later became the North American Association of Enterostomal Therapy, then the International Association of Enterostomal Therapy, and now the Wound, Ostomy, and Continence Nurses Society.  Gill was instrumental in founding the World Council of Enterostomal Therapy (WCET), which held its first congress in Milan, Italy, in 1978.  Gill  served as the first president.4 

Turnbull and Gill were also concerned about supporting patients with an ostomy and their families. In 1960 the two formed the Cleveland Ostomy Association, with Gill serving as chair for the first 2 years.1 In 1962, the association became the United Ostomy Association.

Gill’s passion for ETs and ET nursing drove her to travel the globe. She founded ET education programs in numerous countries, supported efforts to distribute ostomy supplies worldwide, and taught patients and their families wherever she went. Gwen Turnbull, ET/WOC nurse and daughter-in-law of Rupert Turnbull, wrote that Gill’s life was “guided by triumph over incredible obstacles, an indomitable spirit and fire, the richness of worldwide travel, an undying passion, unlimited energy, a heart bigger than a barn, a thirst for knowledge, incredible guts, dedication, an irascible sense of humor, and a magnetic smile that won over even the toughest of opponents.”5

On October 25, 1998, Gill died at age 78. Her mission and passion were to bring a better quality of life to people with ostomy, wound, and continence needs. Today, every ET, ET nurse, stoma nurse, and WOC nurse carry on this mission. From the beginning, the ET role was patient-centered and interprofessional. Having been a patient herself, Gill understood the importance of patient-centered care and literally represented the concept. Patients having access to appropriately trained specialty nurses is her lasting legacy.

Festschrift

In 1995, Gill approached Paula Erwin-Toth and myself about helping her write a book about the history of ET. Erwin-Toth, who was born with bladder exstrophy and as a young child had urostomy surgery (she was one of “Norma’s kids”), was now a grown woman, nurse, ET/WOC nurse, and Director of the WOC Nursing Education Program at the Cleveland Clinic Foundation. She had studied the Classics before becoming a nurse; I had studied Ancient History and Egyptology before becoming a nurse and ET/WOC nurse. We were familiar with the academic tradition of Festschriften, a contributed book compiled by the person’s students, colleagues, and friends to honor them during their lifetime. It seemed like the perfect way to capture the early history of ET and honor Gill, who had boxes of papers, letters, and files that she offered for our use.

Erwin-Toth and I contacted the early pioneers and current leaders in ET/WOC nursing from around the world and asked them to write chapters. Support was provided by 5 industry partners: Coloplast/Sween; ConvaTec, a Bristol-Myers Squibb Company; Hollister Inc; Marlin Manufacturing and Development Co, Inc; and Smith & Nephew United, Inc. The first edition of the Festschrift was published in 1996 by HALGO, Inc, a small publishing company owned by my Egyptology professor, Dr. Han Goedicke.6 Five hundred (500) softcover books were printed and distributed by the 5 industry partners. One special book, brown-leather–bound with gold lettering, was presented to Gill at a ceremony in September 1996 at the Cleveland Clinic. I always say it was the nicest thing that I’ve done in my lifetime!

In 2012, thanks to the efforts of Dr. Elizabeth Ayello, then WCET Journal Editor, the WCET published a second edition of the Festschrift.7 It included a moving tribute by Gill’s daughter, Sally J. Gill-Thompson, ET. In November 2020, the WCET released a commemorative e-book, 3rd edition, to mark the 100th anniversary of Gill’s birth.8 By making a donation to the Norma N. Gill Foundation (via the “Donations” link on the WCET website: www.wcetn.org), you can download this edition to read for yourself. Most importantly, you will be helping the WCET continue Gill’s vision that all patients around the world who have ostomy, wound, and continence needs will be cared for by nurses with specialized education.

Conclusion

This quote from a eulogy given by Erwin-Toth at Gill’s funeral on October 29, 1998, is one of my favorites:

Norma shared enduring bonds of love and respect with thousands around the world – her work has touched millions of lives and will touch millions more. Innumerable adjectives – and, by Norma’s own admission, a few expletives – have been used to describe her. She once told me that she should have her name changed legally to “That damn Norma.” Then she roared with laughter and added, “Ain’t I a stinker!” Everyone in this room has a Norma story to share. She inspired us, encouraged us, challenged us and sometimes even nagged us; she never stopped caring and never stopped learning – her thirst for knowledge was unquenchable. She never failed to listen and offer advice, vision, direction and support.7

Thank you, Norma! Patient advocate, role model, mentor, and the world’s first ET!

 

Diane L. Krasner is a wound and skin care consultant in York, PA. Address all correspondence to: dianelkrasner@aol.com or contact her via her website, www.dianelkrasner.com.


The opinions and statements expressed herein are specific to the respective author and not necessarily those of Wound Management & Prevention or HMP Global. This article was not subject to the Wound Management & Prevention peer-review process.