WHEATON – Wynscape Health and Rehabilitation employee Jennifer Franck used to visit resident Helen almost every day. Franck had previously cared for Helen's husband, so the two knew each other well.
Although Helen was just as alert and oriented as ever, she needed to live at Wynscape for medical reasons. Sometimes she would ask Franck why she was still in this world when her husband and friends had moved on to the next, and Franck would tell her there was a reason.
One day when Franck arrived to work, a nurse told her Helen wasn't doing well. She went straight to Helen's room where two other nurses were holding her hands and praying. Franck put on Helen's favorite hymns, and soon the resident died.
"In my heart, ... I just had this overwhelming feeling of that was the most beautiful thing I've ever been a part of," said Franck, life enrichment program manager at Wynscape. "Even though it was someone dying, it was just like that's how it should be for everybody."
Franck shared the story at that morning's staff meeting. Staff members were in the midst of deciding on a facilitywide goal to plan in 2011 and implement in 2012. After having a hard time finding a goal that would not only improve resident satisfaction but also involve all departments, they finally found it through Franck's story: developing an end-of-life program for residents who were no longer receiving curative treatment.
The Bridges program at Wynscape in Wheaton addresses residents' physical, emotional, spiritual and social well-being while respecting their end-of-life wishes, Wynscape administrator Aimee Musial said.
When residents seem to be declining and have chosen non-curative treatment, they enter the Bridges program. Staffers hang a laminated copy of a painting of a bridge and landscape by Wynscape life enrichment partner Maureen Duax on a resident's door to let everyone know that person is now part of Bridges. When a resident is actively dying, a copy of a cherry blossom painting also by Duax is hung on the door because cherry blossoms signify the gentle transition between life and death in Asian cultures, Franck said.
All staff members, like Duax, participate in the program in some way. Nancy Fraley, who works in medical records at Wynscape, now serves as the Bridges chaplain as well. Housekeeping staff create a special folded towel and vase display in the rooms of those who are actively dying.
And one of the biggest contributions to the program came from a member of the kitchen staff who pointed out that residents should leave Wynscape the same way they came, causing a major change in the way death was treated at the facility.
"We [had] to shift the entire culture of the building now to say when someone dies, we celebrate them, we respect their life until the very last minute in this community," Musial said.
Before that suggestion, residents who died were brought out the facility's back door, instead of through the front. A dietary aide named Rosalina said residents shouldn't go out the same door as the garbage thrown away by staff members every day.
Because of that comment, staffers now escort the bodies of residents through the facility's front door after gathering to say goodbye in residents' rooms. Residents receive a blanket when they come to live at Wynscape, so that blanket is used to cover their bodies when they leave.
In addition to the staff escort, spiritual services provided by the Bridges chaplain, and small gestures like the folded towel display, the Bridges program also includes social and emotional supports for residents and their families.
These include special bedding for spouses who want to stay in their spouse's room and private performances by the Threshold Singers of Wheaton and cellist Pippa Downs.
Another large part of Bridges is caring for residents' physical well-being through pain management.
One patient is in the program now after six died in a two-week period a few months ago, Franck said.
Musial said the Bridges program has benefited Wynscape by helping staff members take a break from their busy schedules to acknowledge each other and the facility's residents.
"For five, 10 minutes of your day, you're tuned into someone else's loss, your staff's loss, your co-workers' loss," Musial said. "It's been great for us."