Michelle Peterson, BSN '16
Tell us about your current workplace setting as well as the focus of your work?
I work in a 24 bed Intensive Care Unit at South Shore Hospital, which is a level 2 trauma center. We see patients of all kinds and as nurses we oversee the entire hospital for any codes or rapid responses that require an ICU nurse at the bedside.
South Shore Hospital has a practice called "Heartbeat in a Bottle." Can you describe this practice for us?
Prior to the pandemic, some nurses would print out a dying patient's last EKG strip and give it to their family in a small red tube used for blood draws. During the pandemic, we lost most of our patients without family present, which meant that we were unable to give the family their loved one’s last EKG strip or provide them with any comfort. Nurses became the last ones to say goodbye and to hold their patients' hands. Family members could only watch from home on Facetime.
As soon as the hospital’s restrictions on family visits were lifted, I knew I wanted to make sure that each family member received their loved one’s last heartbeat. With my mission set, I got to work putting the strips in blood tubes as was done in the past. Then, a new nurse I was training, who is super crafty, recommended I use little glass bottles she had at home (pictured right). We decorated the bottles with a ribbon, added a heart, and a tag with the saying "My heart is with you, always".
When I presented the first newly designed bottle, my patient's family members smiled and hugged me with gratitude as they walked out the door without their loved one. This experience brought me a sense of closure, too. I tried so hard to keep my patient alive yet they passed despite my best efforts. It warmed my heart to see my patient’s family members smile after such a stressful and emotional period.
What is your “why” for participating in this tradition?
My “why” for participating in this practice is due to watching so many patients die without family during the pandemic. Prior to the pandemic, I could offer kind words and gestures to patients’ families when they came in for their daily visit or when I could see that they were hardly eating or sleeping due to the stress. During the pandemic, phone calls and Facetime while I was completely gowned up were my only ways to communicate. I didn't have the ability to hug family members or offer my sincere condolences. It was as traumatic on us as it was for the patients’ families. The final heartbeat in a bottle is an incredible gesture for families in mourning and it helps the nurses as well.
May is National Nurses Month. The theme for 2023 is “You Make a Difference.” How do you think that you are making a difference in the lives of your patients and their families when you present this bottle?
I think I am making a difference with the last heartbeat in a bottle because I am turning a traumatic and very sad moment into a time of gratitude and reflection for my patient's life. A patient who comes to the ICU typically does so in dire need of the life support measures that I can provide. While in our care, I put my heart and soul into prolonging their life. When I offer this keepsake to families, I see it as a way for me to honor the patient that I fought for and to provide my families with an everlasting keepsake of the last time their loved one’s heart was beating.
What knowledge, skills, and attitudes do you feel you bring from the IHP into your work today?
During my clinicals at the IHP, I was immersed into my patients lives and their family dynamic. Taking care of patients and involving their family caretakers while in the hospital is something that I have always brought into my practice. Hands on teaching and education about procedures and medications can relieve some of the anxiety that families experience when their loved ones are in the hospital.
If you would like to learn more about the "Heartbeat in a Bottle" practice happening at South Shore Hospital, please contact the Office of Alumni Relations to be connected to Michelle.