- Nicole Killian and her dog, Moose
This "Life Stories" profile is part of a collection of articles remembering Vermonters who died in 2023.
That kind of measured decision making under pressure was typical of Nicole. An emergency room nurse and former president of the 911 ambulance service Richmond Rescue, she gained a reputation for her calm and empathetic demeanor as she responded to crises ranging from frostbite to car accidents to sexual assault.
When Nicole "would come in and take over as a charge nurse, the whole department would breathe a little bit more easily," said Meaghan Knakal, an emergency medical technician with Richmond Rescue and close friend of Nicole's. "You just knew that she was going to come in and handle it."
- Nicole hiking a section of the Long Trail with Moose
To cope with the constant exposure to trauma, Nicole sought solace through travel and spending time in nature. On July 10, at the age of 28, she died doing what she loved most. While hiking a technically challenging route on Black Tusk, a mountain in British Columbia near Whistler, she stepped on loose volcanic rock that gave way underneath her.
A month later, several hundred people showed up to celebrate Nicole's life at Bolton Valley Resort. Guests donned hiking boots in her memory.
Related Obituary: Nicole Killian, 1994-2023: Dedicated nurse practitioner will be remembered by the words she lived by: adventure is out there
Nursing gave Nicole the flexibility she sought. She traveled almost every month, whether hiking a volcano in Guatemala, section-hiking the Long Trail, horseback riding in Nicaragua or spelunking in ice caves in Iceland. She ran marathons and completed the Rut, a roughly 17-mile course on Lone Peak in Montana that gains a daunting 7,800 feet of elevation.
In 2017, she posted the view out her plane window to Instagram with the caption, "I haven't been everywhere but it's on my list." She traveled with friends, family and her canine companion, Moose — a boxer-bulldog mix who accompanied her in everything from hiking to standup paddleboarding.
Nicole might have seemed shy at first, according to her dad, Mike Killian. "You'd never know" how adventurous she was, he said. "But that's part of who she was. She would see where her comfort zone was — and she'd push it."
Nicole grew up in Richmond. She learned to ski at just 3 years old and frequented the slopes at Bolton Valley. A hiker from a young age, Nicole would follow a trail of M&M's her mom, Eveline Habermann, left along the path to coax her onward. On Labor Day every year, the family would drive out to Burton Island State Park, where the kids were free to explore by bike as long as they communicated back to their parents through walkie-talkies.
- Nicole and her brother playing in the leaves
"I do it!" became Nicole's slogan as a toddler — a response she gave whenever her parents would try to do something on her behalf. "Very quickly, she proved that she was a very independent person," Eveline said. "She just knew what she wanted."
That drive for independence continued into Nicole's teenage years. Eager to transition into adult life, she graduated a year early from Mount Mansfield Union High School in 2012 and went on to study nursing at the University of Vermont.
Through college, Nicole worked as a nurse's assistant at the UVM Medical Center. She volunteered abroad in Tanzania and Guatemala, where she took on increased responsibility — providing care to those with HIV/AIDS, pulling infected teeth and assisting in the delivery of babies.
After graduation in 2016, she worked as a nurse in the emergency department at Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center in Lebanon, N.H., and as a scribe at the UVM Medical Center. She hoped to go on for additional schooling to become a nurse practitioner, but she delayed her dream to earn an online doctor of nursing from University of South Alabama.
Mike said he didn't realize until after the fact that Nicole had chosen to attend online school primarily so she could help when he was diagnosed with throat cancer — a sacrifice he never would have asked of her. "Every visit I went to with the oncologist or with radiation folks, she was there by my side," he said. "She really took care of me."
Nicole extended that same familial treatment to her neighbor, Sue Drollette, who was undergoing treatment for colorectal cancer. Nicole would accompany Drollette to doctors' appointments, give her medical advice over the phone, and come over to the house just to hug her and hold her hand.
"She'd say, 'Ask me anything that you're worried about, and I promise I will always tell you the truth,'" Drollette said. "She wouldn't gloss over something."
That candid approach was characteristic of Nicole. "She would acknowledge that situations were really crummy and just take that in stride," her friend Knakal said. Nicole's forthright communication helped patients "begin processing the event in order to be able to start moving forward."
In 2017, Nicole was nominated for the DAISY Award, a program honoring nurses who go above and beyond to provide compassionate care to patients and families. "Made me feel like a person and not a number. Made my wife comfortable during a stressful time," the nominator wrote. "She's a lovely person who obviously cares about other people."
Trauma-informed care was an asset as a first responder at Richmond Rescue, where Nicole led a Sunday night crew that worked a 12-hour shift starting at 6 p.m. Nicole's skill and sensitivity earned her leadership positions at the 911 ambulance service; she was elected vice president in 2017 and president in 2018.
Allina Bennett, who worked the Sunday night shift, said Nicole taught her everything she knows about emergency response; for her comforting presence, Nicole was a role model. "She led by example," Bennett said. "I remember always thinking, I want you to be my nurse [if] I had a time of need."
In 2019, Nicole started graduate school at New York University to become a nurse practitioner with a specialty in palliative care. After earning her license, she continued to work in emergency rooms at New York-Presbyterian and Mount Sinai hospitals in New York City, as well as at the UVM Medical Center. She split her time between Richmond and New York City, racking up more than 100,000 miles on her Subaru.
At UVM, Nicole was most passionate about her work as a forensic nurse examiner, treating patients who were victims of sexual assault or domestic violence and aiding them in evidence collection.
Nicole was especially thoughtful in her approach, Knakal said. For example, Nicole would communicate patients' stories to other staff, rather than making them retell the traumatic event themselves. She also validated patients' desires to sometimes refrain from proceeding with an examination — a way to give victims back their autonomy in the aftermath of an assault. After Nicole's death, UVM named one of the rooms used in the sexual assault nurse examiner's program after her.
"She made the world a little less scary," said Knakal's husband, Alex, who's also a paramedic at Richmond Rescue. "That level of panic or anxiety would always decrease a little bit with her around."
Travel was a way to recharge. Her excursions were ambitious but low budget. In 2018, she drove up the coast of California with her sister, Elise. The two would park their camper van at a Walmart overnight and sustained themselves on peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. In 2022, the pair biked across the Netherlands on shoddy bikes meant for commuting, not long-distance travel. They never needed "to do anything fancy" to have fun, Elise said.
Nicole was set to start a full-time job as a concierge nurse with Sollis Health, a private urgent care practice in New York City, when she died.
For her family and friends, a cruel irony of the loss is thinking about how Nicole would have been there for them as they grieve. "She made you feel safe, and she made it OK not to be OK," Knakal said. "All she wanted to do was to make people feel better."