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ER throws impromptu birthday party for patient

Bellingham | July 13, 2018
Celebration of milestone moves many to tears

“Max” (not his real name) was a familiar face in the PeaceHealth St. Joseph Medical Center Emergency Department (ED) in Bellingham, Washington. His struggles with addiction had changed him from the person he once was. He was chronically homeless and often came to the ED multiple times per week, even multiple times per day.

It was a typical day when Max arrived in the ED for care this spring. Emily Dickinson, RN, provided care to Max and sent him on his way to continue with his treatment plan at a local drop-in center. But patient access representative Lindi Fassett made a discovery as she entered the details of the Max’s visit into his medical chart. It wasn’t a “typical” day at all. It was Max’s birthday.

Emily called Max back into the ED waiting room and quickly collaborated with her colleagues to mark the occasion. They rounded up treats; they signed a birthday card; and they convened together in the waiting room to sing him a hearty rendition of “Happy Birthday.” It was an impromptu party.

Emily admitted she wasn’t sure how Max would react to the fanfare, but it far surpassed anything she could have ever expected. Max, who had a history of seizures and a flat effect, showed emotion. He had tears in his eyes.

This was a powerful moment for Emily and her fellow caregivers, including Alison Shahan, RN; Melissa Dykstra, RN; and Ralph Weiche, MD. They saw a side of Max they hadn’t seen before; they felt as though they’d reached a deeper layer of his humanity.

“He appeared grateful—and like he really felt cared for,” Emily said. “We got emotional as well.”

Emily reported that she’s reflected a lot about the meaningful experience and often discussed it with others. “The interaction was refreshing for our entire team,” she reported. “It wasn’t just an act of giving someone medicine or treating someone’s symptoms; it was an act of kindness that touched us just as much as it touched the patient.”

Emily has also wondered how long it had been since someone had celebrated Max’s birthday. Her philosophy, which she has shared with her own kids, is one of respect and dignity for all people. She said, “Everybody was born to a mom and dad that loved them a lot. Some people may have made some bad choices along the way, but we all deserve to be celebrated on the day we were born.”

Max’s ED birthday party is just one page in a new chapter of everyday celebrations taking place in the PeaceHealth St. Joseph Medical Center Emergency Department. Spearheaded by Emily, the initiative aims to honor all special occasions taking place as patients receive care in the ED.

Greeting cards are on hand to be signed and presented in recognition of important milestones, including birthdays and anniversaries, for patients and their families. Emily reported that a rare 100th birthday was even celebrated by her team.

The Emergency Department can be a busy, chaotic and frightening place.  It’s not the setting one might imagine for celebrations. But, thanks to the efforts of Emily and her fellow caregivers, the PeaceHealth St. Joseph Medical Center ED is a part of both the difficult and joyful moments of people’s lives. It’s a new layer of individualized and compassionate care.

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