A Birthday to Remember

Honoring the 2 Central Staff at University of Maryland St. Joseph Medical Center for reminding us all that, in times of difficulty, the simple kindness of others can be the beacon of hope for all.

It’s no exaggeration to say that the impact COVID-19 has had on our lives has been unimaginable—most especially for those working in health care facilities. Since the start of the pandemic, hospital staff have been challenged with new ways to work and provide care for patients who are sick and frightened and directly affected by new, isolating safety regulations. The things patients often looked forward to, such as a visit from a loved one, were now not possible, in order to keep them safe and strong. While the staff at University of Maryland St. Joseph Medical Center did what they could to ensure communication and connectivity between patients and families, these calls and virtual visits, they understood, would never compare to being able to hold a familiar hand.

But even during the worst of times, there comes a spectacular moment of thoughtfulness or unexpected kindness that can make a heartwarming difference to someone in need…and, blessedly, that’s just what UM St. Joseph’s heart care staff did, to mark a once-in-a-lifetime occasion for a lonely patient.

On May 28, 2020, the staff pulled together to celebrate the 91st birthday of one of their patients, Mr. S. The staff learned of this milestone when unit clerk Joyce Roche received a birthday card for the patient from the hospital’s Admitting Department. Feeling moved, the staff decided at that moment to hold a surprise birthday party for Mr. S. Since there were no visitors allowed at that time, they had to get creative. “We realized that we’d need to find a way to host a virtual party, so we could invite Mr. S’s family and friends,” said Eileen Skaarer, RN, nurse manager. She and her team reached out to the patient’s daughter, who was overcome at this over-and-above act of caring. The virtual party, she told them, was a chance to bring her whole family together, loved ones who, up until then, had been separated due to COVID-19.

When staff learned how much the party meant to Mr. S’s family, they threw themselves into making it extra special. They borrowed a computer tablet from the hospital’s Incident Command Center in order to host the virtual party, and purchased a birthday card, balloon and—fittingly!—a Superman mug; then they gathered staff from the heart care unit, the Spiritual Care Department and our Intensive Care Team to join in the occasion.

The final step had come: The family was on video, the staff were ready, and so began the singing of “Happy Birthday.” To Mr. S’s surprise and delight, the small parade joyfully marched into his room. It was then that the small moment began to feel so large—the family at ease being able to see their loved one and the patient overcome with happiness, despite all other challenges…This spur-o-the-moment party had transcended beyond a small celebration into a precious family memory that will not be forgotten.

Just a few days later, Mr. S was discharged into home hospice care and passed away in July 2020. The moment’s impact was best described by Eileen: “Every day, we encounter patients in despair in our normal environment of care—patients with poor prognoses, high-level surgeries and life-altering situations. Throughout the pandemic, we’ve felt a sharp increase in despair amongst our patients and families, while, at the same time, staff were experiencing their own challenges outside of work. This experience with Mr. S allowed us to look beyond the despair and embrace joy—something so incredibly uplifting, made possible by something as simple as a video call and a birthday celebration. Finding moments like this feed our spirits as health care providers. Knowing we made a difference for this patient and his family helped bring us through this challenging time.”

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