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How Northside’s H.E.A.R.T. Strings program uses empathy to support the grieving

Walk to Remember is the largest pregnancy loss awareness walk in the state of Georgia.

Credit: Photo provided by Northside Hospital

Credit: Photo provided by Northside Hospital

Walk to Remember is the largest pregnancy loss awareness walk in the state of Georgia.

The death of a baby, the loss of a pregnancy or the news that your child will face lifelong limitations is undoubtedly one of the hardest things to face. It's a situation no parent wants to be in, but their journey is made a little easier with Northside Hospital's H.E.A.R.T. Strings program.

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Available at the hospital's Atlanta campus, H.E.A.R.T. Strings provides support for parents facing these losses and challenges. The acronym stands for key components of the program: Hope, Empathy, Alliance, Resources and Teamwork.

"I just think our program is one of a kind. I truly don't think there's a program in the country anywhere like it," Melissa Petersen, a perinatal bereavement clinician with H.E.A.R.T. Strings, said.

"Our long-term goal is to be the gold standard for care," she added.

The program trains staff members to help them know how to best provide needed support to families. Last year, she said, the program trained over 120 staff members, and already this year, over 200 staffers have received training. H.E.A.R.T. Strings aims to make sure that anyone who works with patients facing these losses and challenges receives training, including staffers in the emergency room, surgical services, technicians and nurses. Secretaries have also received training.

"It's grown exponentially," Petersen said.

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Jessi Barnes, a nurse at Northside Hospital, has taken many classes through the H.E.A.R.T. Strings program. She worked at another hospital while in nursing school, and found the support offered to a patient who had experienced a fetal death to be inadequate. At Northside, she wanted to take H.E.A.R.T. Strings classes so she could provide the best possible care.

"I wanted to educate myself to give them the best nursing care I could give them," she said. "It's been very helpful. It helps you connect with the family on their incredibly difficult journey."

She found that the training helped with one of the first infant losses she faced in Northside's Neonatal Intensive Care Unit. A family's full-term baby unexpectedly passed away, and while the staff couldn't give the family the life they wanted, they gave them support and protected them as much as possible.

The program gave the family mementos such as pictures of their baby and a sterling silver necklace with their baby's thumbprint imprinted on it.

"I love these families. They have a special place in my heart. They didn't ask for this, and all they ask for is help getting through this," Barnes said.

"I just can't speak highly enough of the work that they do in H.E.A.R.T. Strings," she added.

H.E.A.R.T. Strings training is provided for staff members at Northside Hospital.

Credit: Photo provided by Northside Hospital

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Credit: Photo provided by Northside Hospital

The program also helps parents connect in support groups and bond together at programs throughout the year, such as the Atlanta Walk to Remember.

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It began informally when nurses would do a phone follow-up with patients who had experienced a loss. In 2011, Amy Alexander established the H.E.A.R.T. Strings program, and it has since grown to have a database of over 5,000 patients.

Over time, the program also added palliative care to its mission. As a result, parents who are told their unborn child will be born with a condition that would prevent him or her from living for very long after birth can now also receive care and support.

In addition, parents who experience a pregnancy after a loss are also supported through a program called Rainbow PALS. The group meets in a social setting and helps members experience the joys of pregnancy while handling its fear and anxiety. Petersen herself has been in this situation.

H.E.A.R.T. Strings' services, support groups and other programs are free and are available to anyone, whether or not you are or were a patient at Northside. To learn more about the program, visit https://www.northsidepnl.com/. The website has sections with information on resources and support as well as recommended reading material for perinatal care, perinatal palliative care and pregnancy after loss.

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