Monday, October 01, 2001

When patient dies, her job begins

Nun consoles the families

By William A. Weathers
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        As Sister Anne Ralston makes her rounds through the intensive care wards at University Hospital late on a Thursday night, a colleague jokingly greets her with the moniker, “The angel of death.”

Sister Anne Ralston stops to talk with Carmelita Wright at University Hospital's Intensive Care Unit.
(Cincinnati Enquirer/Steven M. Herppich photo)
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        Sister Anne takes no offense.

        It's a fairly good description of one aspect of her job as a social worker in the Corryville hospital's Office of Decedent Affairs.

        Sister Anne is a grief counselor for relatives of people who die at the hospital — from fetal and neonatal deaths to deaths from long illnesses, vehicular crashes and acts of violence.

        “I get called for every death in the hospital” during my shift, says Sister Anne. “I was actually on duty the night Timothy Thomas came in. I met his mother and consoled her.”

        Mr. Thomas, 19, was unarmed and fleeing police when he was shot to death April 7, sparking days of civil unrest in Cincinnati.

        In addition to helping notify and console distraught relatives, Sister's Anne helps to expedite the completion of death certificates, inquires about tissue and organ donations, and autopsy consent, and assures a body is taken to the morgue.

        “She's wonderful with the families and the nursing staff,” says Miete Koob, a staff nurse in the neurosurgical intensive care unit.

        As Sister Anne returns to her office from her rounds just after midnight, the message light is flashing on her telephone. She learns an elderly cancer patient has died.

        Sister Anne immediately goes into action. She checks with the doctor and learns he has already notified the family of the death before she makes her call.

        “I'm just sorry to hear the news about your (relative),” Sister Anne begins her conversation.

        She then asks the relative whether the family wants an autopsy, would like the deceased to be a tissue donor, and if the family has made funeral arrangements.

        Sister Anne ends her conversation by saying, “Is there anything I can do for you? I'll give you my phone number.”

        In this case the family members decide not to come to the hospital at the early morning hour. When relatives do come in or are there when their loved one dies, Sister Anne must be prepared to deal with a wide range of emotions.

        “The way people grieve — you never know,” she says. “You get those who are very emotional to the point you have to help them to the floor because they're going to pass out; and you get those who are very stoic. I've had people wail when their 97-year-old grandmother dies.

        “Once I had someone who told me to leave them alone — but that's the only time.”

        How does she cope with dealing with death night after night?

        There have been more than 2,500 deaths at the hospital since the decedent affairs office was created in October 1998.

        “I have pictures of my (24) nieces and nephews up there (on the wall of her small office),” says the 45-year-old social worker. “If I need a break, I just come in here and sit down.”

        But, clearly, it takes a certain type of person to do this job effectively?

        “It has to be someone that's comfortable with this and knows how they feel about death,” says Sister Anne. “I think it's part of the natural way of life. We're all going to die. I'm quite comfortable that some day I'm going to die... I think there's life after this. I think my spiritual life helps.”

        Sister Anne entered the Sisters of Notre Dame convent in Columbus in 1980 and earned a bachelor of arts degree in religious studies at the University of Dayton in 1986. She worked 10 years as a chaplain, including stints at a hospital in Utah and Good Samaritan Hospital in Cincinnati, before begining her present job in March 1999.

        When Sister Anne was preparing to start her job in the decedent affairs office she was told she would be working rotating shifts with her colleagues.

        But she volunteered to work straight night shift (11:15 p.m. to 7:15 a.m.) to avoid having to constantly adjust her body clock.

        How does Sister Anne prepare for her job each night?

        “I pray for a quiet night,” she says. “It doesn't happen usually. My next prayer is that I be effective as I can for the members.”

        If you have a suggestion for Night Watch, call William A. Weathers at 768-8390; fax 768-8340.


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