The Death Shroud

My career seems to revolve around circular story threads for some reason. When I went to work at the University Hospital I started noticing these little quilts that were about 3x4 feet in size. They showed up on top of the sheets covering the sick ICU patients. I was checking one out when a young ICU nurse decided to educate me about them. I guess she thought my smile was some sort of cynical response so she took it upon herself to defend the quilts.

"These quilts are made by hospital volunteers and we put them on the beds of our most serious patients. It is very comforting to the families". I was told. She stepped in front of me to straighten the quilt out - a nice effect.

"They get to take them home if they want to. Almost all of them do."

"It's a nice tradition", I said. "How'd it get started?"

"It started in the peds ICU, I think." she said. "Anyway we all think it's good for the families, where ever it came from."

I nodded and walked to the next room still smirking. No doubt she thought that I didn't appreciate the idea. Not true. Yes, it had come from the peds ICU of this hospital. But that's not the origin. The origin was at another hospital and began with the story of what was sarcastically labelled, 'the Death Shroud" by the ICU nurses at another area hospital.

I was part of a group of trauma surgeons at this other hospital a few years earlier. One of my partners and I talked a lot about how cold and impersonal the ICU could be particularly for critical trauma patients. We thought about several things but we liked one idea in particular- a trauma quilt. We asked a friend of ours who made quilts as part of a club if they would make us one if we supplied the materials. The club gladly obliged and produced a magnificent full sized quilt. It really was beautiful.

After a lot of eye rolling we convinced our partners to allow us to try out the quilt in the ICU. The rules were simple. Patients who were dying would be cleaned up and the quilt would be placed over their bed before the family was brought in to see them and say goodbye. The goal was simply to make things a little less impersonal at such a devastating time. The quilt was able to be cleaned of course and my partner and I paid for all expenses.

We presented the idea and the quilt to the nursing staff who pretty universally thought it was a really stupid idea. They called it the death shroud and some refused to have anything to do with it. But a couple went along.

After a few weeks the quilt was reluctantly used for the first time. We had it cleaned, and set it in its closet. Before we knew it, it was being used on more and more critical patients. And all the nurses were suddenly behind it. It had been in use for about 3 months before I really got to see why they had changed their minds.

I came into the ICU to see a badly injured young patient who was brain dead from a car accident. There was nothing that could be done. His family had been informed and were coming in to see him for the first, and the last, time since his accident. I had chaperoned far too many families to such a bedside. Not the way anyone would like to remember a loved one.

But I have to say I was stunned by the effect that quilt had. The technology in the room became almost invisible and the family felt comfortable huddling in close to him. Usually all the gadgets make people frightened to even touch their loved one for fear of messing something up. But all that registered was this young man secured under that quilt. It was amazing. I had no idea.

Before long the nurses had adopted the thing and took care of all its needs. They got a lot of positive feedback from families who strangely singled out the quilt in their thanks.

About a year later, we lost the quilt. There was a high visibility trauma case with many injuries and deaths. One victim who made it to the hospital was wrapped in the quilt when their family gathered around for the last time.

I was helping the nurses prepare the body when the patient's spouse came back in and gently took the quilt and held it close to their chest, walking away with the last thing that had held their loved one while they lived. We, of course didn't have the heart to try to get it back even though it was our only one.

Two days later we saw the quilt in the news. It was cleaned and draped over a quilt rack at the foot of the patient's coffin at their funeral. The survivor took it as the coffin was removed from the ceremony and carried it as before.

We decided of course to get another but then the nurses had a better idea. They had asked the volunteers at the hospital to make small quilts that could be placed on a lot more beds and given to the patient's family as a remembrance. The idea spread throughout the hospital and then the city. Before long, it wasn't restricted to just the most sick but showed up all over the hospital.

So the Death Shroud spawned many progeny. So many that their origins became obscured like all good things. They have come to provide far more comfort to the living than to the dead. They became a symbol of compassion, humanity, dignity and remembrance.

And with that short encounter in the University ICU, another circle closed for me.


Michael Lockridge said...

You seem to have a nack for finding human touch points, and skill in telling the tales relating to them. I admire that humanity, and thank you for sharing this tale.

Sadly, I live in a darker world, and have few tales that are so uplifting in the face of illness, injury and death. You have inspired me to review my career of supervising broken humans who wreck their own lives and the lives of those who love them.

Perhaps I can find something positive and uplifting in all of this mess. A hard task, but one that you convince me is worthwhile.

Thank you for sharing this. It has value to me.


Pliny-the-in-Between said...

Thanks Mike - and thank you again for your extremely kind words before. I would suspect that the criminal justice world would be more of a challenge as far as finding something up-lifting but as you mention, having stories that relate to the broad scope of human highs and lows have great value - if nothing else they help us relate the experiences that help shape who we are. Not a bad thing.

as far as the rest, in medicine, empathy anatomy and physiology go a long way ;)