June 12, 2019 Suwanee: Rita Pincumbe, a compassionate Gwinnett Medical nurse known for making lovely comfort blankets shows off some of her work on Wednesday, June 12, 2019, in Suwanee. Pincumbe recently handed out her 100th comfort blanket. Curtis Compton/ccompton@ajc.com
Photo: ccompton@ajc.com/Curtis Compton
Photo: ccompton@ajc.com/Curtis Compton

ICU nurse Rita Pincumbe blankets patient families with love

Rita Pincumbe has an offbeat but effective strategy she says helps her beat the severe burnout syndrome that runs 25 to 33% for critical care nurses. "If I've had a bad day, by the next day I kind of forget about it," she says. "That's what keeps me coming back, my ability to forget about it."

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For her patients and their families, though, Pincumbe has led a project with the opposite strategy: She sews blankets to give to some of the patients and families she works with at the ICU at Gwinnett Medical Center-Duluth. The blankets are soothing in the moments of emotional stress and grieving involved in being an ICU patient or companion. And many times, after the earthly suffering has ended, they help family members to remember.

The blankets are made from hand-selected complementary patterns that show to advantage when Pincumbe and fellow project volunteers fold them a certain way. They go on top of the hospital linens while the patient is in the unit. After the patient is discharged or passes away, the recipient's family is encouraged to take the blanket home.

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The response has been gratifying. Remarks like, "This feels like a little piece of home" and "It doesn't feel so cold in here now," are commonplace. And some of the blankets have a long afterlife. One patient's family wrote the ICU to let them know, "My mother uses that blanket [you gave our father] every night when she watches 'Jeopardy!' She says it feels like he is still with her." Other blanket recipients survive and are able to report back themselves, like the woman who said, "I keep the blanket on my bed as a reminder of just how far I've come."

Pincumbe brought the idea for the project home with her after an AACN NTI conference in San Diego four years ago. "One of the breakout sessions was on palliative care," recalls Pincumbe, who also has experience as a per diem nurse at Peachtree Christian hospice and a fill-in palliative care nurse at Gwinnett Medical Center. "The guest speaker talked about the unit she worked on, and they had a comfort closet and would let the patient or their family pick out a comfort blanket. The idea came to me that our unit could do this. It seemed easy since I could sew and had just started making quilts."

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Though Pincumbe works a full-time job, is a runner who trains five mornings a week, and keeps three of her eight grandchildren who live nearby one day a week, it never occurred to her to simply pass the idea along to someone else. "The stories about the blankets really touched me, and I thought, 'I can try this,'" she remembers. "I always figure where there's a will, there's a way."

She was awed at the impact of these small gestures. "I made a few blankets and we had the first few families pick out one that would match the patient's favorite color. I was so surprised at how happy the families were to pick out the blanket. It seemed to distract them for a little while on their grief."

The project has thrived, recently giving out its 100th quilt. "It's not always patients dying or with hospice," Pincumbe says. "It can be someone going through a difficult time, or who has family issues. We think, 'Yeah, you deserve a blanket.' And they get to pick out a certain one." When she makes fabric selections, Pincumbe usually goes for cotton in bright colors, "something to add a spark," she says. Other nurses on the unit also like to select fabric or offer assistance in other ways. A nurse who led Girl Scout Troop 2404 has also offered the troop's services, and they've contributed another 10 blankets. A local church has even donated blankets to the "comfort cart."

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Her mother, who died about a year ago, made a mark on the project, too. When her mom still lived in Florida, Pincumbe would bring her fabric on visits and her mom would mail back her contributions. After her husband's death, Mom moved to live closer to her adult children in Georgia and kept up the effort. "Making blankets was something she loved to do and at 85, it kept her busy and gave her the feeling of satisfaction in helping others in their time of need," Pincumbe recalls. "She was just like the patients and their families. She loved those blankets!"

Pincumbe is a "lifer" as a nurse who's been living in the Atlanta area for 31 years. At home, Pincumbe says her husband is her biggest fan and her eight grandchildren are "one of my biggest joys. They keep me busy." She first earned her associate nursing degree in Arizona in 1985, then moved to Georgia. In 2000, her daughter graduated with a Bachelor's degree and Pincumbe herself got her Bachelor's of Science in Nursing from Georgia Baptist.

She really likes the new staffing matrix at GMC that allows her to have a 3-to-1 patient-nurse ratio and some of the other technology developments that have come to the nursing profession.

She'll have her 65th birthday in September, but says she can't envision giving up the lifestyle. "I have been a nurse for 33 years," she explains. "Sure, some days are stressful. But many days I get more back from the patients and their families who are so thankful for the care we provide."

She may cut back on hours, "but right now I'm very happy," she says. "And I haven't burned out yet!"

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