The Man in the Red Cross Blanket

May 17, 2017, 9:00 AM, Posted by

In this personal essay, Sue Hassmiller shares how an ICU nurse helped her face the most difficult milestone of her life—and discover a deeper meaning of a Culture of Health.

A nurse enters a hospital through the Emergency entrance.

Editor’s note: In September 2016, Bob Hassmiller, beloved husband of our own Sue Hassmiller, our senior adviser for nursing, was involved in a bicycle accident that left him critically injured and ultimately took his life. We asked Sue to share her story—and she very graciously agreed—because we believe that a Culture of Health is possible even when people are at their very sickest. She tells us how.

My life is separated into two time periods: Before my husband’s accident—and after.

Bob and I were married for 37 years, and he was, in every aspect, my best friend. While I traveled frequently for work—work I am very passionate about—Bob was the person I came home to, my bedrock, my backstop and my biggest fan. We knew each other as only two married people who have been together for so long can. And we relied on each other for our very different strengths.

Then came the call no one ever wants to get: Bob had been seriously injured in a bicycle accident, and after a 12-hour stay in a local hospital here in New Jersey, he was airlifted to Philadelphia. Suddenly, my best friend was in that ICU bed. And I was at his side.

Like most nurses, I am comfortable when faced with others’ injuries and illnesses. I can navigate the health care system. I know the “lingo” (although I’m a bit rusty with it). The ICU experience, however, is another thing entirely when your loved one is the one surrounded by intravenous pumps, gloved-and-masked health care providers, beeping monitors, and a breathing machine. While I was physically surrounded by the love of dear family and friends—and virtually by my supportive RWJF colleagues—I felt very much alone.

Sue and Bob Hassmiller Sue and Bob Hassmiller at a Red Cross event.

Before Bob’s accident, I spent my professional career very focused on public health, on prevention. I was a passionate ambassador for my version of a Culture of Health. I told other nurses that they needed to help prevent illness. That they needed to teach others to eat right, exercise, and manage their chronic conditions. But there was little room in the talks I gave for nurses who worked in intensive care units or emergency rooms, for how they could build a Culture of Health.

Where was a Culture of Health in all this? I wondered. Where was Bob’s Culture of Health? I felt the weight of my responsibility to Bob, for Bob, for making the decisions that he would want me to make for him. But now, in hindsight, I realize that was his Culture of Health—putting him at the center of the health care experience, making the decisions that he would want made. I could not have done that without a few key members of the health care team—but particularly Bob’s loving and dedicated ICU nurses. They listened as I told stories about my best friend, my husband, about our love and his dedication to the American Red Cross. They looked at our photos. They admired the Red Cross blanket a colleague of mine had picked up for him, a blanket he had wrapped around so many others’ shoulders—but that now lay wrapped around him despite a raging fever.

As I considered the life that might lay ahead for Bob, these nurses supported me as I came to this realization: “He doesn’t want help ever and he did not want this kind of brutal life where all he would have to look forward to every day was a swarm of help and utter dependency. He told me that previously, and we supported each other as we wrote such in our advanced directives.” It was also a nurse who helped me pass the most difficult milestone of my life so far. I trusted, our nurse, who cared for Bob and me so much, with my soul and Bob’s life. She helped me make the most painful decision I’ve ever had to make. She always knew what to say to me. When I questioned and wavered, she told me what to do and how to do it. When I told her Bob liked music, she brought in her iPad and laid it next to his head to hear. She moved my 6’4” best friend closer to the side of the bed so I could lay with him. And in the end, she would not leave her shift until Bob and God made their decision about when to go, and she could leave me in peace. My pain is deep and profound, but I know it was the right decision for him. That, to me, means Bob experienced a Culture of Health—even at the end of his life. And our nurse knew the value of making a human connection. Her care, her experience, her hugs were what mattered most at that time.

I wish for everyone to have a nurse like her.

My grief is still overwhelming at times; it is my constant companion even on the best of days. But when I share about a Culture of Health now, it has a new and deeper meaning for me.

I am back at work now. I am facing my new life: Life after Bob. My grief is still overwhelming at times; it is my constant companion even on the best of days. But when I share about a Culture of Health now, it has a new and deeper meaning for me. Yes, it still means healthy food to eat and safe places to exercise. But it also means centering health care around the patient—for indeed, consumer experience is one of the drivers in our Culture of Health Action Framework. That’s something I tell every nurse I meet now: You can help build a Culture of Health, even for the very sickest, by knowing not just what is the matter with the patient, but what matters to the patient—and his family.

I know it’s what Bob would want me to do.


about the author

Sue Hassmiller

Susan B. Hassmiller, PhD, RN, FAAN, former senior adviser for nursing for the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, and the director of the Future of Nursing: Campaign for Action.