'Heartbeats in a Bottle' comfort grieving family members

August 15, 2021


When a patient dies in the intensive care unit at Mercy Medical Center in Springfield, Massachusetts, nurse Maria Hermanson gives the patient's nearest family members an expression of sympathy she calls "Heartbeats in a Bottle." These are tiny glass bottles with a printout of the patient's heart monitor rhythm strip visible inside.

Nurse Maria Hermanson, who works at Mercy Medical Center in Springfield, Massachusetts, creates mementos for the loved ones of patients who have died in the facility's intensive care unit. Mercy is part of Trinity Health.

Hermanson says she creates the mementos as a way of communicating to patients' loved ones that "we cared about your family member and we care about you."

Hermanson, who works the overnight shift in the Trinity Health hospital's ICU, says patients there sometimes have very long stays. The unit's staff often bond with the patients and their families. This connection has been especially important during the pandemic, when many patients have been unable to have visitors due to infection prevention protocols. The unit's staff has been an essential communications link to family members.

When a patient who has been in the ICU for at least 24 hours dies, Hermanson prints off a miniature copy of a portion of their digital heart rhythm strip. She trims off excess paper and seals the strip in an inch-high bottle. The heart waves are visible through the glass. Hermanson says she cries every time she writes the sympathy card to go with the heartbeats bottle.

She learned to assemble the bottles about two decades ago from a clinician at a hospital in Holyoke, Massachusetts. That clinician would keep track of who owned which stethoscope by attaching a bottle with the owner's name in it to the tool. At another hospital where she worked, Hermanson saw the palliative care team gift the bottles — with copies of the patient's heart rhythm strip inside — to family members of deceased patients.

Hermanson estimates that she has made several hundred heartbeats in a bottle, about 50 of them for the bereaved families of Mercy Medical ICU patients.

Copyright © 2021 by the Catholic Health Association of the United States

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