I had no idea about the tragic series of mistakes that precipitated my wife’s death when I wrote a thank-you letter to her caregivers, which ended up being shared around the world. Even though Laura died, I felt profound gratitude to the medical staff at Cambridge Hospital, sister hospital to Somerville, where for a week Laura lay unconscious in an intensive care unit bed.
“Every single one of you treated Laura with such professionalism, and kindness, and dignity,” I wrote. “When she needed shots, you apologized that it was going to hurt a little, whether or not she could hear. When you listened to her heart and lungs through your stethoscopes and her gown began to slip, you pulled it up to respectfully cover her.
“Then there was how you treated me . . . How many times did you hug me and console me when I fell to pieces, or ask about Laura’s life and the person she was.”
I wrote those words four days after Laura died, e-mailing the letter to each staff member who treated her. Later, the letter was published in The New York Times, and it had an impact I couldn’t have dreamed of. Nearly 1,000 people commented on the Times’s website, from readers who remembered the extraordinary caregivers in their lives, to husbands and wives who’d also lost their partners, to nursing instructors who were using the letter in their classrooms as the example of care to strive for.
“It is you that deserves thanks,” commented an emergency room physician named Samuel, from Santa Barbara, “not only for the brave sharing of these most intimate memories, but equally for the simple act of thanking US. . . . I am sorry we could not save the woman you loved.”
I feel, in my heart, that the men and women of Cambridge Hospital’s ICU are just as sorry they could not have saved Laura’s life. More importantly, I don’t believe a single member of Cambridge’s ICU staff knew anything about how Laura actually died, miles away, on that bench in front of Somerville Hospital.
I lived in that ICU alongside Laura for seven days. There is just no way anyone who entered our room — be it to administer her medication, listen to her heart, or sweep the floor — could have looked me in the eye had they known. None of Laura’s medical records from that morning at Somerville Hospital, which I obtained, contained any mention of Nurse X’s search for her, or the actual content of Laura’s 911 call. The staff at Cambridge was kept in the dark by hospital officials, just as much as I was, and their compassion, and professionalism, was genuine.
Still, when I learned the truth about how Laura died, I thought all the good that came from that thank-you letter, the only meaningful grace to come from Laura’s death, would be nullified. I was about to sue the very same health care provider to whom I’d offered my eternal gratitude, Cambridge Health Alliance — which owns both Somerville and Cambridge hospitals.
I kept picturing the headline, “Man Who Thanked Hospital, Sues Hospital.” Revealing how Laura actually died in this Globe Magazine story, I lament, could have the same effect. Or maybe, it won’t.
A mutual friend of ours, Erin Kinney, gave me hope when she told me that my thank you will still have meaning in spite of the fatal mistakes made by other caregivers.
“I think the people who read the thank-you letter are still going to be inspired by it,” she said. “But I think writing a story about what happened to Laura outside the hospital will also help people, because it will remind nurses and doctors that even when they are tired or exhausted or having a bad day, every one of their actions can still make a difference in someone’s life.
“If it inspires and re-energizes just one nurse in the midst of a rough day, it’s worth it.”
I hope, very much, for that to be part of Laura’s legacy.Peter DeMarco lives alone in Somerville. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org. Get the best of the magazine’s award-winning stories and features right in your e-mail inbox every Sunday. Sign up here.