The Handprint Project is designed to help families of patients at Sacred Heart Medical Center come to terms with a sudden, unexpected death. The project came out of medical social worker Susan Gallagher’s experience with the family of a dying young man in the Intensive Care Unit. She wanted to provide a memento of his life and his death for his three-year-old daughter and his unborn child. Susan happened to have an inkpad and card stock paper with her. She thought a handprint would help to capture the unique nature of this man. She made a handprint for his wife and for each of the children. On the back of each, she wrote details of the day — names of the physicians and staff, the time he was taken off life support, and the family and friends who were present. She put each of the prints, locks of his hair and copies of his name band in each envelope.
The concept was so meaningful that now Susan and a co-worker offer the handprint and mementos to grieving families on the ICU whenever possible. It’s also offered through the Palliative Care Team in other areas of the hospital.
“Making the handprints is a way for the families to become re-involved in the care of their loved one in the final hours,” Susan explains. “People are often intimidated by all the tubes and equipment and afraid to touch their loved one. Once it becomes obvious that someone is dying, this is an activity that can help families become involved again. I try to draw them in, asking that they help ink the hand or hold the paper. This gives them a way to physically connect and feel useful. Soon they are holding the patient’s hand, brushing his or her hair, or patting the patient’s face with a damp cloth. Often they start talking about their loved one and the role they played in their lives.”