Nurses of Note 2023: The RN Case Manager
TABLE OF CONTENTS
PerfectServe’s Nurses of Note awards program honors nurses who deserve recognition for their service, sacrifice, and devotion to their patients and colleagues. For the third year of the Nurses of Note program, PerfectServe is highlighting nurses who’ve gone above and beyond the call of duty and whose resilience, creativity, and determination inspire others to do the same.
These honorees are outstanding representatives from the field of nursing, and the stories they share help paint a picture of the difference they make for their patients and communities every single day. Of the 200-plus winners from this year’s program, we’ve selected a handful to engage with more in-depth profiles that will be published throughout the year. These are their stories.
The RN Case Manager: Niko Pantanizopoulos, RN | Knoxville, TN
We all know nurses are special people who face each and every patient journey head on. This rings true during some of the best, and unfortunately, the worst times of our lives. Niko’s story is close to our hearts here at PerfectServe, as he was a hospice nurse for Dr. Kevin Bailey, whose wife, Karen Metz, is an account executive with PerfectServe. Dr. Bailey was diagnosed with rare cancer in 2018,* but continued to practice for nearly four years before he moved to UT Hospice in 2022. Enter the incredible nurse that is Niko Pantanizopoulos!
Karen nominated Niko for this program because of the impact he made on Karen, her husband, and their surrounding family. Karen shared many things about Niko, and her words describe him best:
“Niko became like family, visiting in our home weekly, sometimes more often. He was experienced, intelligent, professional, compassionate, yet approachable, and didn’t back away from difficult conversations.
I know he met my husband and me where we were, sometimes laughter, sometimes tears, sometimes reality checks on Kevin’s condition. One day Niko even brought Kevin Greek food because, in conversation, it came up that Kevin had a patient who used to bring it to his office all the time. It was evident that Niko was and is extraordinary and did this with every one of his patients and families; that’s just the kind of man and caregiver he is.
Unfortunately, my wonderful husband passed away in September of 2022, but Niko left a huge mark on both of us and eased us into accepting death with dignity. What a blessing to have an individual play such an important role in one of the most stressful of life events. I will always be grateful to Niko and to UT Hospice for their competence, caring, and gracefulness!”Karen Metz, Account Executive, PerfectServe
Niko didn’t always dream of being a nurse, but he knew how much he enjoyed caring for other people in their times of need. Combining his love of science and people, Niko first became a CNA before studying to be an RN. For the past seven years, he has been the RN Case Manager at the University of Tennessee Medical Center Hospice Services – LHC Group. In this role, he coordinates care among several disciplines. Each patient has a social worker, chaplain, MD/NP, a CNA, and sometimes a bereavement counselor, and Niko oversees the continuity of these care teams. He is very passionate about his work in the hospice care space—in fact, he calls it “more of a ministry than a career.”
To Niko, “hospice care is [real] patient- and family-centered care. It is when healthcare can finally get rid of all the distractions and focus on managing you instead of your disease.” By this, Niko means that, in many patients’ journeys, overcoming and battling illnesses are about making sacrifices to manage a disease. But in hospice care, Niko says providers focus on dignity and comfort and have honest conversations without distraction. He calls it “another side of healthcare with fewer limitations.”
It’s no secret that death is an uncomfortable topic for most people, and that’s true for many providers as well. It wasn’t always easy for Niko to give this kind of care, especially to family members and friends who are supporting someone in hospice care. He worked for five years on the cancer floor of UT Medical Center and became acquainted with many comfort care patients. Though they were often his favorite patients to care for, Niko says he never liked the helplessness he saw in their loved ones’ faces.
“It was a foreign and overly clinical environment,” Niko said. “The end of life needs a more intimate and sacred space like a home. As soon as I started working here, I realized that this is more of a ministry than a career.”
For Niko, caring for others at the end of their lives is deeply important, emotional, and sacred. He says the challenge for nurses is to immediately get into a person’s space and “seem to belong there.” He believes he’s there for more than just a clinical purpose—he’s there until the day the patient dies and to educate the family members about how to take care of the patient, as well as prepare the family for life after their loved one is gone.
“I don’t know if those are skills that can be taught,” Niko said. “When I enter a home, I enter with that in mind. I let them know that I’m not just interested in their terminal illness—I’m interested in them as a person, and I’m interested in their family as well. The home is a sacred space. If you understand the home and family, you will understand the person much better. The family will still be there after the patient dies.”
Karen explained that Niko became “like family” to her and her husband. To her, Niko was a breath of fresh air who treated her husband with dignity and respect.
“There is such a misconception about hospice; it’s not always end-of-life care, but life care with assistance to try to live your best life even with the progression of the disease process,” Karen said. “It really takes a special person to do the job that [Niko] and others do when caring for individuals nearing the end of life.”
For other nurses in the hospice field, and even to nurses of all kinds, Niko says it’s essential to balance professionalism and to protect your own heart. This means it’s important to have difficult conversations with families in your care, and to be very honest, but also to make space for your own emotional health. He follows the Golden Rule, and won’t back down from it.
“All the humanity I encounter day in and day out is so beautiful, and I want to pour myself into their human experience, but I can’t do that,” Niko said. “I would be burned out by the end of the week and then be useless to anyone!”
Niko said he keeps all of his appointment notebooks and sometimes flips through them to reminisce. He often uses the image of a graveyard to remember his patients fondly: Each patient holds a place, and he takes a stroll through the graveyard from time to time. He shared that the families of his patients hold a special place of honor in his mind. He is inspired by them and their love and support for their family members who are receiving care. He hopes, one day, to perform that role as well as they do. He says, “It is the most noble labor of love.”
Niko, your experience and willingness to share this side of healthcare reminds us that nursing comes in many forms. Thank you for sharing the truth of your role with us and for what you do for patients and their families each and every day. We’re beyond honored to call you a Nurse of Note!
Why did you choose to become a nurse?
Nursing was not my first career. I chose nursing because I enjoy helping people in hard times and in their time of need. I also enjoy science! I followed the advice of another nurse and became a CNA first before getting my RN degree. During my clinicals, while in pursuit of my CNA certification, I realized I had found a calling indeed!
What is the biggest lesson you learned while serving as a nurse throughout the pandemic?
Thankfully, I did not have to work in the hospital setting. At hospice, during the pandemic years, I was acquainted with how essential a service we provided. I learned how to adapt and roll with the punches. So many punches!
What’s one piece of advice you would give to your younger self about working in the healthcare industry?
Get used to technology! Also, understand the other disciplines in healthcare.
What do you do to relax after a stressful day?
I enjoy my family, quiet time reading and praying, and watching something funny on the TV.
What changes would you like to see in the nursing field of the future?
I would like to see some serious action in recruiting and educating more nursing staff, including CNAs, LPNs, and RNs. We hear a lot of talk but see very little action in that area.
If you had to pick one song that describes you as a nurse, what would it be?
I’d have to say “Won’t Back Down” by Tom Petty.
Make sure to follow our blog as we publish profiles about more of our amazing Nurses of Note honorees throughout the year!
For more about Nurses of Note 2023, check out the full list of winners.
*We’d like to honor Dr. Bailey for his 30-year career as a Physical Medicine & Rehab physician in Knoxville, TN. November 10th is Neuroendocrine (NET) Cancer Day. Although rare, it’s one of the fastest-growing cancers, and many patients are misdiagnosed for years because the symptoms are so similar to other diseases. Most patients are Stage 4 at the time of their diagnosis. Karen is on the Board of the Healing Net, which works to find funding and spread awareness for the disease and its research. Karen has raised $17k and has a $25K commitment for a donor. If you’d like to learn more about how you can support her goal or NET cancer research, visit The Healing Net’s website.