Caregivers Voice Emotions of Working with Victims of Violence

Joe, a 20-year-old man, is admitted to Boston Medical Center’s Emergency Department with a gunshot wound to the head. By the next morning, he is brain dead. His adoptive and biological families, both present at the hospital, are devastated and decide to remove him from life support.


On a recent Tuesday morning they spoke to a standing-room-only crowd about the emotions they experienced surrounding the young man’s death.

“I learned that this man’s family lived eight houses away from me,” said Sandy Whittaker, RN, a nurse at BMC for 30 years. “That was tough. I realized I may have seen them. But to do my job, I had to look past that and focus on the care.”

“You grieve with the patient and family when they first arrive,” said Suresh Agarwal, MD, Chief, Surgical Critical Care. “But sometimes grief gets in the way of providing the best care possible and you have to separate it and move forward.”

Members of the patient’s care team were panelists at the Schwartz Center Rounds, a forum where BMC caregivers from multiple hospital disciplines come together to discuss the emotional impact and challenges of patient care based on an actual case. The rounds, held in more than 200 facilities in 32 states, commemorate Kenneth Schwartz, a Massachusetts health-care lawyer diagnosed with lung cancer in 1994 who believed in nurturing the compassion in medicine.

Panelists included members of BMC’s Violence Intervention Advocacy Program (VIAP), which helps victims of violence recover from physical and emotional trauma, and Public Safety officers who worked on the case. Thea James, MD, Director, VIAP, and an emergency medicine attending physician, presented an overview of the program and shared her thoughts on caring for victims.

“I think about the difference between myself and the patient and its opportunity,” said James. “This man lost his life and it’s a lost opportunity for society to benefit from what he had to contribute.”

Diane Sweeny of the New England Organ Bank spoke of the experience of approaching a grieving family about organ donation.

“I approach a family knowing that my job involves death and that their deceased loved one could be any one of us,” she says. “I try to be as sensitive and caring as possible about the patient and situation.”

The rounds ended with questions and thoughts from the audience.

“I worry that we have become desensitized to the violence,” says Sheryl Katzanek, Director of Patient Advocacy. “I don’t know how we continue to care with compassion and ensure patients aren’t just another statistic. How do we do it?”

“I think the key is to humanize the victim,” responded James. “That’s what makes him not just another statistic.”




Courtesy: Boston Medical Center Corporate Communications

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