Kate Payne, Vanderbilt nurse and bioethicist, has died

Associate Professor of Nursing Kate Payne, JD, RN, NC-BC, a bioethicist, attorney and beloved nurse leader at Vanderbilt University Medical Center and Vanderbilt University School of Nursing, died at the Alive Hospice Residence on Jan. 6 after a very brief and unexpected illness. For many years, Payne helped people have the best death they could, and she experienced that. Throughout her brief stay at Vanderbilt University Medical Center and Alive Hospice, she was surrounded by her husband, Scott Weiss, friends and exceptional caregivers, including many people who were both colleagues and friends. Payne frequently worked with Alive Hospice and served on its ethics committee for two decades; she benefited from all the lessons she taught over the years.

Headshot of VU bioethicist and nurse Kate PayneAt the time of her death, Payne served as a clinical ethicist and key member of the Center for Biomedical Ethics and Society at Vanderbilt University Medical Center. During her more than 35 years in health care, she worked in hospitals and community health in a variety of roles, including teacher, consultant, leader and direct caregiver. As a clinical ethics consultant at VUMC, she provided assistance to families, patients and health care teams in decision making, discussion of ethical concerns and consideration of goals and options, including end-of-life care decisions.

VUSN Dean Linda D. Norman, DSN, FAAN, says Payne was one of the most beloved nurses at Vanderbilt. “There was no one better to walk you through challenging, sometimes painful, moral clinical decisions. She shared her knowledge and experience with many nursing and medical students and faculty, and helped hundreds of families and health care staff through difficult times,” said Norman, the Valere Potter Menefee Professor of Nursing. “Her legacy is ongoing. Generations of health care providers will continue to draw on lessons learned from Kate.”

Center for Biomedical Ethics and Society Director Keith G. Meador, MD, ThM, MPH, called Payne an unflinching force for good and doing the right thing. “Kate was a nurse and attorney who was regionally and nationally recognized as a clinical ethicist of distinction, with great wisdom and thoughtfulness. She could always be counted on for a fair and straightforward assessment of a situation,” said Meador, who is also professor of Psychiatry and Health Policy and director of Mental Health and Chaplaincy at VHA. “These gifts were superseded only by her big heart and unfailing commitment to the nurturing care of trainees, patients and staff colleagues across the community of VUMC.”

Professor of Nursing Emeritus Bonnie Pilon, PhD, FAAN, was friends with Payne for decades. “Kate knew about things that most of us keep at the periphery of our lives. She brought awareness to complex situations that allowed the rest of us to process difficult human conditions,” Pilon said. “She was always a nurse, but she was so much more than a nurse. Her ethical frame for life experiences benefitted all us a great deal. Once you knew Kate, how she framed things stayed with you beyond any single encounter.”

Payne was born in Denver, CO, and earned her bachelor of science in Biological Sciences from Colorado State University before earning a bachelor of science in nursing from Rush University. She studied law at Pepperdine University and passed the Illinois bar, and was a fellow at the MacLean Center for Clinical Medical Ethics, Pritzker School of Medicine, University of Chicago, from 1993-1994. She was also a certified nurse coach and held a certificate in business administration and management from Belmont University.

Prior to joining VUSN and VUMC in 2015, Payne spent nearly 19 years as director of Ethics and Palliative Care at Saint Thomas West Hospital. She also briefly served as chief executive officer for nonprofit University Community Health Service.

Outside the clinical environment, Payne helped guide and advise two nonprofits, the Dispensary of Hope and Hope Beyond Hope. She helped write and pass the Tennessee Health Care Decisions Act of 2004, making it easier for Tennesseans to complete medical directives. She also served on the Nashville Mayor’s Task Force to revise the code of ethics in the area of perceived conflicts of interest for Metro-Nashville government. She served as the ethics advisor for the state of Tennessee’s pandemic flu planning process and was part of a multidisciplinary team looking at ethical issues with disaster planning for the state.

Payne published regarding ethics in practice and end-of-life care. She provided practical advice for nursing professionals in the “Ask the Nurse Ethicist” column for the Tennessee Nurses Association. In addition to VUSN, she also taught at Belmont University and Lipscomb University. She was named Tennessean Nurse of the Year in 2009.

“Kate loved to help and teach people, and counsel them in real-world ways,” Weiss said. “That was one of her strengths. She was direct and straight-forward, but she did it in a compassionate and humorous way.” Discussing Payne’s age provides one example of her humor. Payne was 63, although she would not have said that. Weiss says that she started counting her years backward when she turned 50. Using Payne’s logic, she would have said she was 37.

Notes written to and about Payne on her CaringBridge website from friends and colleagues mention her directness and humor. One post said that she never had a conversation with Payne that didn’t include laughter. Several say that when faced with an ethical decision, they think, “What would Kate say about this?” Others talk about her humanity, wisdom and clarity of thought. She was known for her always open office door and frequently baking for others.

Assistant Professor of Nursing Susie Leming-Lee, MSN’90, DNP’11, CPHQ, knew Payne more than 20 years. “I always think of Kate as a ‘Mother Earth Warrior’ because of her care for the planet and all things natural, along with a vigilance to fight for doing what is right thing for the patient,” Leming-Lee said. “She was never afraid to stand up to those who did not.”

Mohana Karlekar, MD, FACP, FAAHPM, is Assistant Professor of Medicine and Chief, Section of Palliative Care at VUMC. “Kate was many things to many people…a nurse, an ethicist, a teacher, a talented baker and a dear friend. Her impact on all those she touched is both profound and lasting.  We are all better off to have known her,” he said.

Payne is predeceased by her father, Chuck Payne. She is survived by her husband, Scott Weiss of Nashville, mother, Doris Payne of Denver, sister Karen Payne-Ayres (Pat) of Denver, brother Fred Payne (Mitzi) of Houston, Texas, two nieces, a great-niece and great-nephew, and many friends and colleagues.

Arrangements for a celebration of her life will be announced at a later date. Friends are encouraged to visit her CaringBridge website to share recollections and comments (https://www.caringbridge.org/visit/katepayne2).

Donations to the Kate Payne Clinical Medical Ethics Legacy Fund may be made online at https://give.vanderbilthealth.org/PayneClinicalEthics or by mail to 3322 West End Avenue, Suite 900, Nashville, TN 37203.