Thrive by IU Health

June 01, 2021

A spectrum of color - Remembering patients entrusted in their care

A spectrum of color - Remembering patients entrusted in their care

When a patient dies at IU Health, a team of caregivers gathers to remember and honor a precious life. This is how that memory is shared, and how COVID-19 patients are remembered.

By IU Health Senior Journalist T.J. Banes,

The family suffers. The team members suffer. It’s a loss.

For several years palliative care team members have remembered those losses by solemnly saying each patient’s name, and tying a colored ribbon to a wreath.

There was the patient who was diagnosed with a brain tumor. IU Health social worker Helen McClain tied a blue ribbon to the wreath. She also shared a voice recording of the patient with his mother.

There was another patient who suffered a brain injury. Her spouse, parents, and siblings struggled with her death. IU Health social worker Tina Stachmus tied a pink ribbon to the wreath.

IU Health social worker Tina Stachmus ties the pink ribbon to the wreath

Typically, members of the palliative care team choose a ribbon that represents a patient’s favorite color or reminds them of the patient’s personality. More recently another color has been added specifically to remember the lives lost to COVID-19. That color is silver.

“We try to focus not only on the illness, but who they are and who their families are,” said McClain. She and Stachmus are among a team of caregivers that include physicians, social workers, nurses, nurse practitioners, chaplains, and other caregivers. Their focus is on providing patient comfort and helping loved ones cope with illness.

That comfort can take many forms – easing symptoms of pain, nausea, anxiety, and breathing problems, and providing emotional and spiritual support.

“Palliative care is a plan for caring for patients in all phases of illness – from onset to death. Typically, we like to see patients early on so we develop relationships with them and set goals along the way. We help them develop their advanced directives and talk about quality and quantity of life,” said McClain.

Since the coronavirus pandemic, their roles have increased rapidly each day. There’s been the component that family contact has been restricted, and patient symptoms are severe.

“This pandemic is a black swan which has impacted us all in many ways permanently and will continue to do so,” said IU Health Dr. Shilpee Sinha, a member of the palliative care team. “For one team to see this much death while they are individually struggling with their own personal issues brought out by the pandemic is a recognizable concern,” said Sinha.

“When the pandemic hit our hospitals we experienced the most challenging situations managing our patients’ end of life care. We stepped up to do everything in our capacity to support these patients and their families and we tabled a lot of our personal grief and shock. The lack of visitors, lack of ability to sit by the bedside for prolonged periods, having to hide our faces behind masks and gowns all felt so dehumanizing even though we knew it was necessary,” said Sinha. “I’ve always had a sense of pride in our team but during this difficult time they came together in a way that is beyond what anyone could have envisioned,” she added.

Typically, the palliative care team serves about 500 patients annually. During COVID-19 they recognized 49 patients with memorial ribbons. Palliative Care Team Chaplain Paul Goodenough chose the ribbon color silver, as a reminder of the toll the pandemic has taken on human life.

The wreaths have always been a very important symbol to us, and this year we have a wreath like no other and there will probably never be one like it again,” said Goodenough. “It’s a helpful symbol to look at the wreath. It’s a special way to remember this strange new thing that has happened in our world and mourn all the lives lost.”

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