A beloved, longtime nurse became the first to receive a special tribute from a new group at Columbus Regional Hospital.

Mary Legan, who worked at the hospital for 35 years as a nurse and clinical case manager, died unexpectedly Nov. 24 at age 56. At her funeral four days later in Hope, Columbus Regional’s fledgling nurses honor guard paid tribute to Legan’s career with a three-nurse detail and short ceremony that incorporates the legacy of Florence Nightingale, the founder of modern nursing.

A three-person nurses honor guard dressed head to toe in white, wearing caps and scrubs, rotated every 10 minutes in standing guard next to Legan’s casket at Norman Funeral Home.

During the funeral service — attended by Jim Bickel, Columbus Regional Health president and CEO, chief nursing officer Holly Cheek and other nurses and doctors — the honor guard recited the Florence Nightingale Pledge, a statement of the profession’s principles and ethics that nurses recite after completing their training.

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The guard also lit a symbolic Nightingale lamp, and called Legan to duty for the final time.

“Mary Legan, report for duty,” the honor guard said, followed by a pause.

“Mary Legan, report for duty,” the honor guard repeated twice more.

“Mary Legan, you’re hereby relieved of your earthly duties,” the honor guard concluded.

The lamp was extinguished and presented to Legan’s family.

New idea

Efforts to create a nurses honor guard at Columbus Regional Hospital started in the summer, said Sharon Cash, one of the three honor guard members at Legan’s funeral, and a full-time emergency department nurse and part-time nursing supervisor at the Columbus hospital.

During a meeting in August, one of the nurses, Ronni Mahon, said she had recently been to a funeral in Illinois where a nurses honor guard performed a ceremony, Cash said. That surprised and intrigued Columbus Regional’s nurses, and they expressed excitement in forming their own honor guard, she said.

Cash searched the Internet to learn about nurses honor guards, and discovered that several existed in the state, including one in Anderson. She contacted the group, and in September six members from the Anderson group came to Columbus Regional and spoke to about 50 nurses about the honor guard and its role at funerals of nurses, Cash said.

Fitting honor

After Legan’s death, her supervisor thought that a tribute by the honor guard would be perfect for a woman who had dedicated her life to nursing. Through Cash, the lead for the honor guard, the tribute was set in motion.

“Mary was such a caring individual, and nursing was her calling. She was dedicated; she never missed work. Even if there was a snow storm, she was here,” said Daniel Noel, Columbus Regional Hospital director of women’s and children’s services and nursing talent.

Likewise, nursing colleagues said the honor guard tribute was appropriate because of the person Legan was and the care she demonstrated in her job.

Legan had a great bedside manner — actually sitting bedside to talk to patients — and a knack for putting them at ease, said Judy Clipp, a registered nurse who was a student when she first met Legan in 1987. Legan served as her mentor when Clipp started at Columbus Regional two years later.

“She was extremely caring, wanting to open every door to (patients) as far as resources so they would be successful when they left the hospital,” Clipp said.

As a clinical case manager, Legan worked collaboratively with patients, families and doctors to create a plan for success for when patients left the hospital. That included connecting them with resources such as inpatient rehabilitation, home services, shelter and resources in case they couldn’t afford medications.

“Mary was a resource for other nurses, too. If anyone had a question about resources, she knew. And if she didn’t know, she would get the answer,” Clipp said.

Legan also had a way to brighten and lighten the stressful days nurses faced, going on YouTube and playing Pharrell Williams’ song “Happy,” said nurse Kristie Leonard, who worked in case management with Legan for 14 years.

Although Legan had no children of her own, she became close to some children of fellow nurses and often checked up on her “babies,” as they called them, Leonard said.

Legan died while Columbus Regional’s nurses honor guard was still in the formational stage, so Cash called upon Anderson’s guard to help perform the ceremony. Nurses Jan Bronnenberg and Carla Phillips came to Hope, and with Cash provided the nursing detail and performed the ceremony.

“It was beautiful. I didn’t know at the first one what to expect,” Clipp said.

Incorporating the Florence Nightingale lamp and the final call to duty made for an emotional moment, and reciting the pledge served as an important reminder about why nurses do what they do, Clipp said.

“This was a big honor; this was the first one in the area. And for Mary, who was always unassuming … to be the first is pretty amazing,” Leonard said.

Family appreciative

Members of Legan’s family were impressed with the honor guard tribute, too.

Ronitta Bowers, a cousin, said the family was asked Nov. 25 if it would like the honor guard tribute performed, and family members liked the idea.

“For them to start a tradition with (Mary), we thought how wonderful and moving,” Bowers said.

Family members also were impressed at how quickly the honor guard was pulled together.

“I really appreciated that they did it. I was tickled that they could pull it off, and I was very proud that they did it for her,” said Legan’s mother, Pauline Proffitt Engle of Columbus.

Husband Michael Legan said he was honored by the tribute.

“It was very nice; it was very moving,” he said.

Bowers said the number of doctors and nurses who showed up demonstrated the impact Mary Legan had, and how much she was appreciated.

Aspects of the ceremony were touching, she said. The presentation of the Nightingale lamp to Legan’s family brought people to tears, Bowers said.

Next steps

Performing the first tribute ceremony has Cash focused on completing the task of formalizing the hospital’s honor guard.

“It’s really lit a fire for me, really, to get our guard off the ground,” Cash said.

Cash said she would like to get it ready by the end of the year so it can perform ceremonies for nurses, if desired by families, by early next year. Cash said she has the support of the hospital and its foundation to get it going.

Recruiting and training nurses, and informing area funeral homes about the honor guard’s availability are on Cash’s to-do list. She said her hope is that Columbus Regional’s honor guard could serve a 50-mile region.

“It’s such an awesome ministry, to serve your fellow nurse — people like Mary, who helped other people and families,” Cash said.

Pull Quote

“It’s such an awesome ministry, to serve your fellow nurse — people like Mary (Legan), who helped other people and families.”

— Sharon Cash, nurses honor guard lead at Columbus Regional Hospital

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Kirk Johannesen is assistant managing editor of The Republic. He can be reached at johannesen@therepublic.com or (812) 379-5639.