In Gratitude of Hospitals

05/05/2009

In Gratitude of Hospitals 
by Alden Solovy

    A hospital’s staff treats a dying patient and her grieving family with compassion and respect.
"On a Friday morning in early April I made the calls that every father fears. I called my adult daughters to tell them that we needed to get across the country to Maine to see their mother before she died. Ami was visiting a friend in rural Maine and took a catastrophic fall down a set of wooden steps. By the time she reached Eastern Maine Medical Center in Bangor, she had only the slightest brain function left.

Although she had the longest distance to travel, our oldest daughter Nikki arrived at the hospital first. She was there with no family for nearly six hours. An ICU nurse named Lisa watched over her, explaining the life support machines and the clinical status of her mother. Nikki remembers Lisa as a gentle presence that helped her get through hours of waiting for her dad and sister, knowing her mother was about to die.

My daughter Dana and I were held up by weather and were forced to fly to Portland and drive two hours in a downpour to reach the hospital. By then the shift had changed. Our new nurse, Jennifer, watched over Ami, Nikki, Dana and me with the same kindness and care that Lisa had shown. When Ami’s sister Donna arrived around 11 p.m., Jen ordered coffee, sandwiches and snacks for us. She knew how easy it would be for us to neglect our basic needs in those painful moments.

Later in the evening Jen prepared me for the organ donation decision and I, in turn, prepared my daughters. She also explained the process of declaring brain death, which requires two assessments by different physicians four hours apart. Finally, at about 2 a.m., Jen gently suggested that we go get some sleep at the inn the hospital maintains for visiting family. She assured me that she would call with any change in Ami’s condition.

The phone rang at 5 a.m.: Jen told me the first pronunciation was imminent. I called Donna, Nikki and Dana, suggesting that they sleep until the first exam was completed and then return to the hospital to say their goodbyes. I headed immediately back to the hospital. Jen, who pulled a 12-hour shift, introduced me to Angie, the day nurse.

In the four hours between exams, Donna, my daughters and I sang to Ami, told stories, laughed, cried and had our private moments with her. We held hands and hugged each other and Ami. John from the New England Organ Bank met with us. He was amazing in his compassion and his commitment to saving lives. A local rabbi came to pray with us and to offer a deathbed confessional on Ami’s behalf.

Ami’s hair was full of blood. That sight was particularly troubling to all of us. Angie, the day nurse, gently washed, dried and combed Ami’s hair. Ami had already been declared dead once. Still, Angie cared for Ami as if she were caring for her own sister.

Ami died that morning. She was 53 years old.

Everyone we met in the hospital, from the security guards to the ward clerk, from the physicians to the innkeeper, from the charge nurses to the floor nurses, treated us with compassion. Some of them knew our story, some did not. That didn’t matter. A true culture of care emanated throughout the organization.
As we walked back to the inn, one of my girls said, “Mom is lucky that she died here.”
The other one said: “We’re lucky that she died here.”

In the onslaught of criticism of health care quality, it’s easy to forget that our work is sacred. It’s easy to forget that compassion and kindness are as critical to our work as respirators and I.V. pumps. Yes, improving quality is part of that sacred mission, but we also need to honor and celebrate the comfort and care we give families. It reverberates through time and memory. It heals.

Even after Ami died, the level of respect and kindness continued. I returned to the ICU several times to check on the status of the organ donations. The hospital and the organ bank made good on the promise not to leave Ami alone, even in death. We were told that a respiratory therapist did an amazing job revitalizing Ami’s lungs for transplant. Five people received the gift of life from this tragedy—two lungs, two kidneys and Ami’s heart—including a 54-year-old nurse who has now spent her first few weeks off dialysis as a result.

No father should ever have to call his children to say that today your mother is going to die. And no child should see their mom the way my daughters saw Ami. Yet, it happens. Our nation’s hospitals will be there. I hope and pray that every child, every father and every sister get the kind of care we received at Eastern Maine Medical Center.

Today, that’s in your hands. Thank you."
Alden Solovy is executive editor and associate publisher of the journals of the American Hospital Association, Chicago.
The article first appeared in the 
April 14, 2009 issue of HHN Magazine's online site. It is reprinted with the family's permission. 

In appreciation for the care they received, the family has established the Ami Braziel Memorial Fund in support of trauma care services at Eastern Maine Medical Center. Contributions can be sent to EMMC Healthcare Charities, PO box 931, Bangor, Maine 04402-0931.