Billy Rosa, PhD, MBE, NP-BC, FAANP, FAAN
Dr. William “Billy” Rosa—now Assistant Attending Behavioral Scientist in the Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center (MSK)—began his professional career as an actor and dancer. With a degree in theatre from New York University (NYU), he achieved success in musical theatre and dance, including performing with the Radio City Christmas Spectacular. A severe injury sidelined him, though, making it impossible for him to continue. That’s when his career in health care began.
While Billy eventually earned a PhD and Master of Bioethics as a Robert Wood Johnson Foundation (RWJF) Future of Nursing Scholar at the University of Pennsylvania (along with his BSN and MSN from other schools), his first foray into health care was massage therapy school. One experience specifically resonated with him: he used massage therapy to help a client struggling with chronic asthma who, for decades, used her emergency inhaler multiple times throughout the day. The client wrote a letter to Billy sharing that after receiving the massage treatment, she had not needed to use her inhaler for several days in a row, something she had never been able to do before.
The outcome of helping clients improve their health in a therapeutic relationship made Billy realize he wanted to find a way to expand his potential for improving the well-being of others. “Nursing seemed like a natural next career step that would allow me to translate all that I had learned and help multiple people in their path to better health and wellness,” Billy says.
After earning his BSN and MSN (magna cum laude from NYU Rory Meyers College of Nursing and as valedictorian at Hunter College, respectively), he spent one year with the Human Resources for Health Program in Rwanda, East Africa, contributing to the curriculum content for the first Masters-prepared nursing cohort in the country. That experience was the catalyst for two new career goals: a palliative care clinical fellowship as a Nurse Practitioner and earning a PhD.
He began a palliative care clinical fellowship at MSK to give him the opportunity to help alleviate suffering and improve the quality of life for those in need.
“The whole foundation of palliative care is about the human being as a whole,” Billy says. “It is all about aligning the care provided with an individual’s needs, preferences, values, and goals. It’s about ensuring that spiritual care, the social determinants of health, cultural and psychological aspects, and legal and ethical domains are all addressed. For me, palliative care is the holistic framework that nursing is really based on, and my definitions of nursing and palliative care are almost identical. It is not just about end-of-life care—it is about alleviating suffering throughout the trajectory of serious illness, starting at the time of diagnosis in conjunction with curative treatment and, and especially at the end of life.”
To set his plan into motion to earn his PhD, he connected with Salimah Meghani, PhD, MBE, RN, FAAN, Professor of Nursing and Term Chair of Palliative Care at Penn Nursing. Billy says, “Dr. Meghani was truly invested in me as a person, not just my work. She said one of the most important successes was to stay authentic. A PhD is great credential, but if it is detached from who you are and your ability to express kindness and caring, which are the ethics of nursing, then you’re missing the point. It was Dr. Meghani’s generosity and authenticity that drew me to Penn Nursing.”
During his time at Penn Nursing, Billy worked toward his PhD in three years while simultaneously working toward a master’s degree in bioethics. He says, “Ethics and ethical engagement are the primary elements that drive and promote integrity throughout clinical practice, education, and health care.”
Billy credits Dr. Meghani with helping him find confidence as a young scientist. He continues, “I was working on a very tight timeline and am extremely proud of my work in the doctoral program. I think of myself as a naturally qualitative researcher, and I wanted to challenge myself with a quantitative dissertation. Of course, I hit some bumps in the road, but Dr. Meghani was exceedingly patient and always supportive. Our research followed a sophisticated methodology that had never been used in the field of cancer pain to our knowledge. It was a victory for me—I defended my dissertation. All three papers of my dissertation were published and were recognized with distinction by our professional organizations.” Billy’s dissertation received the Research Dissertation Award, one of the International Awards for Nursing Excellence from Sigma Theta Tau International Honor Society of Nursing.
Through his work in nursing, Billy has found his true purpose: to promote the delivery of compassionate care to alleviate suffering and foster dignity. “To be with someone while real healing is happening and to feel that resonance with your own purpose is sacred ground. It is a moment when you realize that this is why you are here,” he says. In the last few years Billy has been focusing on scientific research and writing—and he currently has a book in press with Oxford University Press about the nature of suffering and the goals of nursing, edited with one of his mentors, Dr. Betty Ferrell.
“Writing and disseminating knowledge is the translation of our clinical expertise. Sharing that content and insight can help other nurses and I view it as a form of service to patients and to my community. I love all types of writing whether it is scientific articles and research or editorials. They all have impact whether by shifting a mindset, a practice, or a policy.”
Billy is currently launching a program of research around enhancing palliative care communication for historically marginalized groups, including in the global health space and LGBTQ+ identified patients and their chosen families. He was named to the Crain’s New York Business Notable in Health Care 2021 list and received the International Association for Hospice & Palliative Care’s 2022 Individual Recognition Award, among many other honors and accomplishments. Billy is currently a Cambia Health Foundation Sojourns Scholar, on the Scientific Advisory Group for The Lancet Commission on Cancer And Health Systems, and on the boards and committees of several journals and professional associations. To read more about Billy, visit https://linktr.ee/billyrosa.
Random Fact: Billy has traveled and worked around the globe, including training other health care professionals (in Liberia, West Africa and Rwanda just to name a few), and has partnered with nurses, physicians, and administrative staff to get the medical care services their communities needed. He says, “It is exciting to see how nurses are innovating right now. There is a calling for increased investment in nursing leadership and nursing education.”
The whole foundation of palliative care is about the human being as a whole. It is all about aligning the care provided with an individual’s needs, preferences, values, and goals.