At every hospital across the country this week, there were surely heartwarming – and heart wrenching – stories of families coping with life-threatening injury and illness during the Thanksgiving season. We often hear families tell us how thankful they are for the superb care provided by doctors, nurses, techs, housekeepers and other members of the care team, especially during this season. And, indeed, we all should be grateful for the skill, compassion and dedication of our fellow health care professionals.
But my favorite story this Thanksgiving season is not about the care provided by the health care team but instead by families caring for one another.
The Neuro ICU at Barnes-Jewish Hospital in my hometown of St. Louis cares for some of the most seriously ill patients in the hospital. Staff in the unit support patients and family members experiencing the widest range of emotions – from hope and joy to uncertainty and sorrow. But often the support that family members need comes from more than just the hospital staff. It comes from one another.
Brandon Fleschman, an executive with Office Essentials in St. Louis, had more than enough to worry about this week with a seriously ill family member in the Neuro ICU. But in addition to his own family’s emotional struggles, he noticed and cared about other families’ challenging circumstances as well. And he decided everyone in his new ICU extended family needed and deserved a fitting Thanksgiving celebration.
Initially, Brandon told the staff at Barnes-Jewish that he wanted to provide Thanksgiving dinner for everyone on the floor. But quickly word spread of his generosity, and other families wanted to help, too. By Thursday afternoon, there was so much food filling the Neuro ICU waiting room that they extended invitations to families and staff in other units.
So I love this story for multiple reasons. First and foremost, it is the kind of story that warms the heart and gives all us faith in our fellow man. That afternoon, individuals from all walks-of-life, races, religious beliefs … and yes, probably even different political parties … came together because they cared about one another.
But for those of us who work to improve the experience of care for patients and families, there is another very important lesson that we often neglect: families in crisis can support one another in ways that we can’t. We’ve developed electronic networks that connected cancer patients and support groups that provide counseling and encouragement for families coping with the same disease. But in our quest to move to all-private patient room configurations, have we forgotten that with privacy comes isolation during a hospital stay?
Because we hear only about the problems that sometimes occur when roommates irritate one another, have we perhaps come to believe that families never want to be bothered by other families coping with the same challenges? The amazing sense of care and support found in the Neuro ICU waiting room on Thanksgiving Day leads me to believe that’s not the case. Yes, families deserve their privacy when they want and need it. But they also deserve the special chance to lean on one another to offer the support that only someone going through the same struggles at the same time can give. In addition to thinking about how we care for patients and families, perhaps in this season of giving we should think just as much about how to facilitate their care for one another.