Piedmont Newnan nurse summons angels to the ER

Newnan, Ga. — For most people, dealing with a death is a major life event. For nurses, it’s part of the job to comfort a grieving family in one room and then care for a patient in the next, all while stifling their own emotions after a patient dies.

When Piedmont Newnan RN Joanna Berry called her first time of death on an infant in the hospital’s Emergency Department a year ago, it became too much to bear. She wanted to break down crying, get away from the ED or, better yet, go home and hug her own children, but she couldn’t. She had to stay on the job, caring for her other patients, until her shift ended.

“Despite how emotionally distraught you might feel, you still have to make sure you are properly dealing with your next patient when you just had to code an eight-week-old,” she said.

Berry is thankful she did not work the next day, when caregivers in the ED had to deal with another infant death.

“The next morning when I woke up, I thought, ‘What can I do to make this easier for the people I work with and what would make it easier for myself in this situation?’ ” she said.

At that point, Berry came up with the idea for an Angel Program that could provide immediate emotional support to staff members dealing with a patient’s death. She presented her plan to ED Senior Director Michael Zimmermann who gave it his stamp of approval. Zimmermann provided a budget to pay off-duty staff members who volunteer as Angels to come in to work for up to two hours to relieve a grieving caregiver.

“We don’t need a counseling session for four hours to debrief us. We need 15 minutes to break away, get something to drink, maybe eat something, call our babies and make sure they’re OK, and be relieved that it’s not us that’s the grieving parent,” said Berry.

The Angels bring in food, snacks, coffee, or whatever is needed. They also help staff the unit so the nurses who have just dealt with a trauma can clock out and decompress.

“If one of the Angels walks in to relieve you, you don’t need to tell them anything. They know what just happened to you. I’ll give you a hug. You don’t have to look at me because I know if you look at me, you’re going to cry. You don’t have to say a word. I’m going to give you a hug and tell you to leave,” Berry said. “We’re in your room, doing your job and you’re gone.”

The Angel volunteers are not limited to nurses. Techs and unit secretaries have signed up to become part of the program. Berry would like to see her Angel Program expand beyond the Piedmont Newnan ED into other departments in the hospital. She hopes it will also become a model that Emergency Departments elsewhere can use to combat the high rate of ED nurse burnout.

“The ED is a place where we compartmentalize too much to enable us to make it through a shift. That is what leads to our downfall: addictions, burnout, higher divorce rates and suicide. We don’t cope with things the way we should,” she said.

Berry’s Angel Program had never been more tested than the night EMS brought fellow RN Billy Dedrick into the Piedmont Newnan ED after a motorcycle wreck last August. On-duty staff members worked frantically to save their co-worker’s life. When he died, six of the Angels – as well as every one of the hospital chaplains – came to the ED to lend support.

“When we had Billy, it was 2 o’clock in the morning. It was tough,” Berry said. “He was already pronounced when most of the Angels got here. The staff on duty was just numb. Those who came in simply stepped up and did what needed to be done. But this is what we do for each other to take care of each other.”

After an “Angel” response, Berry puts together a private presentation for the caregivers who have been through a trauma. They receive a dove pin, a poem and a handwritten note that thanks them for serving the patient who died. The poem reads as follows:

Another Goodbye

I said goodbye to you today

In my own quiet way

A hidden tear was shed

Tribute to the life you led.

Empty chair, unspoken reminder of you

Too soon to be filled by a patient so new.

Numb to the pain of so many goodbyes

Sorrow hidden, secretly brush tears from my eyes.

Join the others who paved the way for you

The leader, the song-man, the feisty one, too.

The one who decided he’d just had enough.

Saying farewell has just been so tough.

I imagine you all gathered up there

Playing poker, having feasts, many stories to share.

No restrictions on fluids or food

Not chained to disease, it is….as it should.

Those of us left behind, keep your memory alive

Working hard every day to help others survive

Chair no longer empty, a new soul to tend

Hidden tears suppressed.

A new beginning to the end.