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They are a team, and when it comes to caring for the sickest patients, these two go above and beyond to bring a little joy to the lives of those in their care. Today we celebrate “Certified Nurses Day,” and “Social Worker Month.”
By IU Health Senior Journalist T.J. Banes, firstname.lastname@example.org
They share a corner office in the medical intensive care unit at IU Health University Hospital. The office isn’t large. But it is big enough to store an ample supply of items purchased from what these caregivers call a “hug fund.”
There is lace for wedding apparel, holiday ornaments, and even stuffed animals. These are the gems that adorn the roles played by IU Health Social Worker Sarah Hale and Nurse Case Manager Ruth Miller.
Not many people know that together these two women have planned bedside weddings, birthday parties, and anniversary celebrations. They plan those events in the most desperate of times, the most difficult circumstances.
When a father of five – in his 30s – wanted to marry his fiancé who lived two hours away, Hale and Miller made it happen. When a woman in her 30s also wished to marry her boyfriend, it was Hale and Miller who made it happen.
“When you are a case manager and social worker you are two halves of a brain. That’s why our department is called ‘integrated care management.’ We feel very fortunate to work for Dr. Caitriona Buckley, our medical director. She sets the tone – very professional and high expectations for all of us and I think working with her team is rewarding. It speaks to the excellence that we all feel,” said Hale.
In their daily roles Miller says her team member is a good problem solver.
“Sarah is good at untangling the challenges for patients and their families,” said Miller, a recent Daisy Award winner – recognizing her gift of compassionate care. “The pandemic has added lots of twists and one of my favorite moments is Sarah explaining to an elderly family member how to install Google Duo so she could keep in touch with her spouse,” said Miller.
March is Social Worker Month recognizing those essential workers who are often working behind the scenes of patient care. For Hale that profession began in 1992 – the first year social workers were licensed by the State of Indiana. She started working in Medical Surgery and then transitioned to Medical Intensive Care. Every day, she sees patients who are critically ill – many who may not return to their homes.
“I come from a helping family. My Godmother was a social worker and created the ‘Rainbow Book,’ a sort of bible for social workers,” said Hale, who has been with IU Health for almost six years. A graduate of Brebeuf Jesuit Preparatory School, Hale attended Indiana University for her social worker degree. In 2019 she was a Richard M. Fairbanks ethics fellow.
Miller started her career at IU Health as a nurse on the Krannert wing of University Hospital in 1987. She took 14 years off while her children were younger and returned to IU Health in 2016. She joins a long line of nurses – both of her grandmothers, her mother, sister, and a niece are part of the caring profession.
Both women have been married for 33 years – Hale to her husband Richard, and Miller to her husband, John. Hale is the mother to three adult children – a son and two daughters – including one who is a social worker. Miller is the mother to two adult sons.
One of the greatest challenges they face together is end-of-life decision for patients and their families.
“Every day we are faced with ethical issues - how much medical intervention is too much? We have a person who has been here for 40 days and his loved ones continue to want him to be treated with aggressive medical measures. We have many ‘goals of care’ conversations,” said Hale.
“It’s not only the team thing but also being able to do things with dignity and making sure the family understands the process,” said Miller. “And making sure that family is heard as well. Maybe the family wants to press on but the medical team says there won’t be a good outcome or maybe the medical team wants to press on but the family is ready for the end,” added Hale, whose husband says her role is like ‘grease that helps all the parts move smoothly.’
And at the end of the day, Hale, competitive tennis player unwinds on the court. Miller relaxes caring for her seven house rabbits.
There are many days when the parts are moving so quickly they need those end-of-shift diversions.
It wasn’t unusual for Hale and Miller to spend their days during the peak of COVID frantically calling families to connect with their loved ones. Other times, they have had only a few hours notice of a patient’s last wishes.
Miller, who began sewing in her youth as a 4-H member, has created wedding gowns, ring pillows, and shawls from donated lace and fabrics. She’s also gifted her co-workers with homemade facemasks during the pandemic.
With a moment’s notice they pull together a bedside ceremony bringing in a hospital chaplain, a wedding cake, and a music therapist. On other occasions they work with IU Health’s CompleteLife art therapists to create patient hand molds and handprints to give to family members. If the family wishes, they also collect patient hair samples. They’ve decorated rooms for holidays, gifted patients with Santa hats, and connected family members during long-distance baby showers, weddings, and graduations.
“Connecting people is our specialty. It’s about providing comfort and preserving dignity,” said Miller. “I think we both walk away from here every day grateful for what we do. I’ve said this is the best job I’ve ever had where I get to uncover and provide resources to people,” added Hale.