Elizabeth Johnston Taylor, PhD, RN, FAAN
Elizabeth (Beth) Johnston Taylor was inducted as a Fellow of the American Academy of Nursing in November 2018. She is among ten 2018 inductees who are Penn Nursing alumni. She is a Professor at the Loma Linda University School of Nursing in Loma Linda, California.
Beth can pinpoint nearly the exact patient who sparked her interest in the topic that would define her career:
“I worked the PM shift in the oncology unit at a hospital. Patients would often talk about what it was like to live with cancer while I massaged their backs. One night as I was caring for the President of a chemical company who knew he was imminently dying, he asked me if I thought there was an afterlife. It struck me that such a man would consult me. It’s clear that patients do look to nurses—or at least those they can trust—for consultation on profound spiritual questions.”
The focus of Beth’s research is the spiritual needs of patients and the spiritual response to illness. While she was raised in an evangelistic faith tradition that viewed healthcare as an “entering wedge,” the idea of becoming a nurse had never occurred to her while she was growing up—and certainly not studying spirituality as it relates to patient care. Beth said, “After visiting a childhood friend in the ICU while I was a college ‘undecided’ major, something clicked. I felt inwardly excited about nursing. I knew I wanted to help people, and the hospital seemed like an exciting place to work.”
Beth earned her BSN from a faith-based undergraduate program that taught her it was “okay to offer to pray with patients.” But even then, the concept of spirituality as it related to patients and doing research never occurred to her. “I went to work at a hospital after graduation,” Beth said. “It was the thing I thought a new grad should do. The oncology unit was compelling because of the intensity of patients living with a life-threatening illness. The longer I worked there, though, the more I kept hearing patients talking about how their diagnosis ‘was the best thing that ever happened’ or about how it caused them to reprioritize, or how their faith and family help them to cope. Maybe it’s only natural that I became interested in the topic of spiritual care.”
After two years of clinical work, she entered the MSN-PhD program at Penn Nursing. She credits her experiences and education at Penn with her success as a researcher. “My career goals evolved, in part while I received my Penn education. The modeling of the faculty most certainly influenced how I began to think about my career, too.”
Post-graduation from Penn Nursing, Beth sought academic positions that allowed her to pursue her research. She has explored response to illness and ethical decision making through a variety of lenses, including a plethora of religions, oncology, and hospice and palliative care. Beth stresses that she writes a lot about how to ethically support patients to heal wholistically. “One of my most meaningful research-related moments was when quantitatively asking oncology patients about very overt and traditional forms of spiritual care that a nurse might provide, we found that patients more often than not did NOT want it. Thus, the language and therapeutics for describing and providing nurse-provided spiritual care really need examination.”
She continued, “Here’s my fantasy: When a patient receives nursing care for a health care challenge, the nurse provides wholistic care in such a way that the point of care prompts healing, even if it is only a nudge in the direction of healing. I’d love to see all nurses receive basic training—at least—in being healers for more than the body and mind. That means appreciating the diverse spiritual responses to health, illness, and tragedy, and how these interact with mind and body. I think often what American healthcare does is just provide a quick Bandaid—e.g., ‘pill pushing’—where nurses simply become automatons in this system that often disregard the personhood of the patient.”
The interest in and evidence connected to spiritual healing has grown tremendously during Beth’s career. “There is a huge volume of evidence outside of nursing that should inform our spiritual care and healing practice,” she said, “but it has not yet been introduced enough to make a difference at the bedside. Even people who don’t consider themselves religious often will still recognize a spiritual reality. While religion has always taken a backseat to spirituality during my time investigating these topics, both will undoubtedly continue to be important aspects of life and health.”
Random fact about Beth: She moved to New Zealand in 2007 when her husband decided he wanted a mid-life adventure. They lived in New Zealand for nearly five years; she keeps her New Zealand Permanent Residency sticker in her passport.