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A Patient Died. Here’s What I Learned That Night

Lessons from the cardiac unit.

Naomi Farley, clerical support associate at North Shore University Hospital, stares deeply into the camera.
Naomi Farley | Photo credit: The Well
Two sets of hands clasp one another. One of the hands wears a bracelet.

Who Cares for the Caregiver?

After a long code, a patient died on my unit tonight. As the doctors and nurses did their jobs, the patient's daughter was left with me—the secretary. I was the one with her as she gave her mother a final kiss goodbye. I stood by her side as she gathered up her mother’s belongings. I was the one who walked her to the elevator at the end of that very long night.

I was working my usual 3 to 11 shift when an elderly woman was admitted to my floor. I could tell it wasn’t good. There was a lot of commotion— doctors and nurses rushing in and out, checking vitals and calling orders. It’s never easy to see patients suffer. And it breaks my heart to see their loved ones standing by, scared and helpless. I watched them push past her daughter as they ran in and out, in and out.

Then they handed her paperwork to sign. Her mother had passed.

I’ve worked here for nine years. It never gets easier. I wanted to cry.

The senior nurse stopped by my desk and asked me to go to the patient’s daughter. “I am the person who answers the phones,” I thought. But I knew if I was being called upon to do this, she must really need me. The next thing I knew, I was standing beside Laura.* She had collapsed in a chair outside her mother’s hospital room. There were tears running down her face and she looked stunned. She was talking on her cell phone, but she stopped when I came over. I had a name tag so maybe she thought I was someone important, because she told whoever she was on the phone with that she needed to go, and hung up.

The phone rang again but I reached out my hand to stop her from answering. Then I put it on her shoulder. “Let’s take care of you first,” I said.

We sat together for a while. I rubbed her back while she cried. I just sat there and let her feel her feelings. After a few minutes, she asked if she could go in and say goodbye to her mother. She looked to me for approval.  She wasn’t crying anymore.  

“Do you want me to go with you?” I asked.

“Yes,” she nodded.

I stood by as she smoothed her mother’s hair and kissed her cheek. “She looks so pale but peaceful. Like she’s just asleep,” Laura said. She was right.

“Usually I answer call bells and phones, but tonight I was able to contribute in a more meaningful way.”
Naomi Farley is a clerical support associate on 4 Monti at Northwell Health's North Shore University Hospital. She's been on the job for nine years. | Photo credit: The Well

Part of me couldn’t believe that I was standing next to this woman who was in the middle of processing her own mother’s death. Who was I to be there with her? We didn’t even know each other. But another part of me was so relieved that I was able to provide some comfort to a woman who was experiencing such a profound loss. I didn’t know what to say, but I wanted to say something. I asked Laura about her mother—what she was like, where she’d grown up and whether she had other children. Laura talked for a while. It was really nice and I think it helped.

It occurred to me that Laura should probably take her mother’s personal belongings before the nurses took her away. “Do you want to gather your mother’s things?” I asked. Laura smiled as she removed her mother’s wedding band from her finger and a bracelet she said was a gift from a relative. It clearly reminded her of happier times. It was lovely to witness.  

She asked me what she should do next. I wasn’t sure, but I had a suggestion. “Go home,” I said. “Get home first, and then deal with the phone calls.”

I walked Laura to the elevator and gave her a warm hug. I felt so sad; I knew she was hurting. I didn’t want to leave her. But I had more work to do, my shift wasn’t done. So I stayed at work and became the secretary again.  

Usually I answer call bells and pick up phones. But tonight I was able to contribute in a more meaningful way.  Sometimes even I fall into the trap of thinking the doctors and nurses play the real role and support staff isn’t that important. Tonight was a reminder that everyone in our hospital, from the janitors to the people like me who answer the phones, are around people at the most sensitive times. And we have a chance to help patients and their families just by being compassionate and human.

*Name has been changed

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Published December 7th, 2017
Two sets of hands clasp one another. One of the hands wears a bracelet.

Who Cares for the Caregiver?