JKF Journal



What to do with condolence letters?

A few weeks ago a friend told me about a book called The Happiness Project by Gretchen Rubin. It was a clever little book with lots of tidbits on things that make us happy- one of which was doing something that you have been putting off for a long time, like putting together scrapbooks. Each of my children has a baby book except for Sam, who is now eight years old. His book was my first priority. So, feeling inspired by The Happiness Project and knowing how great I would feel if I completed this nagging task that I had been putting off for years, I gathered the boxes of pictures that had been sitting on a bookshelf. Then I went into every room in the house and gathered the stragglers- the pictures the children had snagged from the boxes over the years. I put them all in the dining room and started sorting and filing just as The Happiness Project suggested. After a little while Sam and Eva came to hep. Jack moved his homework into the dining room and we all started going through the pictures.

One of the boxes contained the condolence letters that people had written to us when Josie died. I had not looked at these letters in over eight years. Eva, who is now twelve, started looking through some of them. She was three when Josie died and I don’t think she remembered much. I watched her as she read one and then another. I wanted to somehow casually take the letter from her without making a big deal. I didn’t want her to read them. I didn’t want her to know about all of that horrible, sad, grieving condolence letter stuff, but I didn’t take them away. I let her read. After reading a few she dumped them all out and put them in a neat pile, and then went outside to play basketball with Sam.
I picked up the letter she had placed on top of the pile and began reading. It was as if the piece of paper had come to life. The words threw me right back to those awful weeks and months. It all came back- that horrible feeling of loss and helplessness. I put the letter down and looked at the pile and then I looked over at the fire burning in the fireplace. I wanted to lay them one by one in the flames and be forever done with all of that sadness. I decided that before I destroyed the letters I needed to think about it first.
I’ve been thinking and pondering for the past week and I still don’t know what to do. I’ve even asked other people their thoughts on the subject. What happens to condolence letters? How long should we save them? A part of me wonders if it would be healthy to get rid of them, to close the door on that part of life. Why save something that brings back such sad memories? It’s not like they are photographs- snapshots into a life that once existed. Those I would never throw away. The letters are just pieces of paper with sad, depressing words- words I don’t want to read again.
But then a part of me thinks I should let them be, and I don’t know why. Would my children ever want to read them? Would their children? I don’t know. I decided I should ask my husband Tony. His response: “I never knew we still had them.” In his mind they had been tossed years ago. Hmmm, this seemed like more of a reason to get rid of them.
I needed to ask another mother who lost a child. My friend’s son died twenty years ago. She had kept the condolence letters in a box in the attic and never read them. Every few years, she would go to the box, take a handful out, and put them in the trash. Five minutes later, she would go back to the trash, pull them out and return them to the box in the attic. “I don’t know why I do that,” she said. “It just feels weird throwing them out.”
I’m still sort of wondering what to do. The letters are upstairs in the hallway waiting to be placed back in the attic for another eight years. Or perhaps they will go into the trash. The Happiness Project does say to get rid of clutter, but maybe clutter is not the right word here. The letters are a different type of clutter which I can’t quite explain. For now, I walk past the box of letters in the hallway and wonder what other people have done with theirs.

Labels: by Sorrel

MONDAY, MARCH 29, 2010

Visiting Excela Health

A few days ago I went to Pennsylvania to speak at a patient safety event sponsored by Excela Health. It was a pretty drive- through Maryland, across the Appalachian Mountains, and then into the Allegheny Mountains heading through Southern Pennsylvania. As Tom the driver and I drove deeper into central Pennsylvania, we passed through little towns- Breezewood, Somerset, Ligonier. I imagined these were old mining towns that were once bustling with life and growth. I was sad to see so many empty storefronts with “For Rent” signs in the windows.

Latrobe, Pennsylvania, was my destination. Tom is a history buff and with every trip we go on he always does a little research and shares his interesting tidbits with me. Fred Rogers (of “Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood”) grew up in Latrobe, and so did the golfer Arnold Palmer. Plus, the banana split was first created in Latrobe.
The great people of Excela Health organized a wonderful event: a reception at 5:30 pm with delicious food, my presentation at 6:30, and a book signing to follow.
There were a couple of things that made this event stand out for me:

-It was held in the Fred Rogers Center – a beautiful facility donated by Mr. Rogers’ family. There were glass cases that held Mr. Rogers’ famous red sweater and blue coat, his blue sneakers and loafers, and the puppets- King Friday and Lady Elaine. All of this notes- yellowing and faded- that he had written for the shows were displayed in the cases. I am 44 year old. I grew up with Mr. Rogers, so it was fun to see all of this.

-Excela did something that most hospitals- at least the ones at which I have been invited to speak- have not done before. They opened up the event to the entire community. It was nice that they recognized that this topic- patient safety- was not just for the health care industry. It was about getting the patient and the family involved. This was something that I had wanted to see for many years and it was a thrill to finally be able to speak to not only health care providers, but regular people just like me.
-The book signing began much like the others. I wrote notes and signed books for doctors, nurses, board members, administrators. Then I began seeing young (really young) faces- students who were in medical school, nursing school and even students who were in high school. A young boy with a baseball cap and jeans that hung low on his hips handed me the book and said, “I think I might want to be a doctor one day.” I wrote a long note to him and handed him back the book. He read the note and then stuck his hand out to shake mine and said, “Thank you, Mrs. King.”
It was great to meet these young, fresh, bright minds and I am honored that they took time out of their evenings when they could have been doing homework, playing sports, chatting on Facebook, or watching TV to come hear me speak and buy Josie’s Story. They will read the book and I hope their dreams of becoming doctors and nurses will come true. I believe if they do, they will always remember Josie.
Thank you, Excela Health, for all of your great patient safety work. Thanks, too, for a wonderful evening. Most of all, thank you to all of the students who came to hear me. Study hard and become doctors and nurses. You are the next generation, the new culture. YOU will make a difference in the lives of many.

Labels: by Sorrel, travel


Getting a Grip on My Fear of Flying

I’ve never really liked flying. As I’ve gotten older, my fear and dread of flying the friendly skies has only gotten worse. I’m not sure why that is- maybe it’s because my children have already suffered the loss of a sibling and I just don’t want them to have to suffer another loss. Since my book Josie’s Story was released a few months ago, my time spent on airplanes has increased dramatically. I’ve been to twenty-five cities in the past seven months. Any chance I can hop on a train (which is not too often) I take it.

The plane lifts off, and it’s the same every time. My hands are sweaty. My mouth is dry. My stomach is in knots. As the plane continues to list itself further and further away from the ground I am certain that soon it will decide that the load of passengers, bags and highly flammable gas is too heavy and the only thing to do is to plop to the ground and explode into a ball of flames. Once the plane levels off and the stewardesses begin serving drinks, I settle down a little until I feel the slightest bump or hear the faintest out-of-the-ordinary sound- surely an engine malfunction- then my panic attack starts all over again. When the plane lands I always give the pilot a little smile and say thank you. I am grateful and I am exhausted and my trip has just begun.
Not long ago I told myself I was either going to give up the travel (which meant giving up the book tour and my work with the health care industry) or I had to get a grip on the situation and find a way to deal with it. I decided I would face the problem head on and try to fix it myself before I went the route of seeing a shrink (which I had no time for) or taking some sort of medication (which I didn’t want to do).
So after seven months of frequent air travel, here is how I deal with my fear of flying:
-When I am buying magazines in the airport before my flight, I say to the cashier, “I hope my plane does not crash.” If the plane were to crash, it would be too weird of a coincidence for the cashier lady. A coincidence like that must be highly unlikely, therefore I am decreasing the chances for the plan to crash. A few flights ago, I decided this strategy was a bit odd (particularly for the cashier at the Hudson News store at BWI), so I no longer use it.
-If I can’t find someone to talk to during takeoff I read my “People Magazine”. It is easy to read and entertaining enough to get your mind off of what is happening. I also chew two pieces of Orbit chewing gum.
-Leaving a little work undone that absolutely MUST be done before arriving at your final destination forces you to focus on something else.
-Listening to good music helps block out the scary noises of the engines.
The thing that really helps the most is the realization I came to thanks to the wise words of my English friend who flies often from London to the States. She mentioned that her most recent flight took eight hours longer than it should have. I asked her why. She proceeded to explain that two hours after take-off they had to return to Heathrow because of a high terrorist alert that had just gone into effect. After another few hours of searching the plane the passengers re-boarded and once again headed west across the Atlantic.
What struck me about her story was not just the story itself, but rather the way she told it. It was as if she were telling me about a trip to the grocery store.
“Weren’t you scared?” I asked her.
“What is the point of being scared and getting worked up when you have absolutely no control over the situation. It is an absurd and ridiculous waste of precious energy,” she said in her beautiful English accent. “When it is your time to go, it is your time to go. You can’t control that, so why waste your energy worrying?”
What she said made sense. Getting worked up, being afraid does not prevent the plane from crashing. It IS pointless. It IS a waste of energy. She was right. When it is our time to go, we go and we can’t control that. We might as well just relax.
So I read my “People Magazine”, chew my gum, listen to my iPod, and do my work that absolutely must be done before I arrive at the next city. I don’t mind sitting by the window anymore. Sometimes I even lean against it and look past the five inch-thick piece of metal and plastic that separates me from the 30,000-foot drop. I look down at all the little houses with the little swimming pools and the little, tiny cars that travel on the little, grey strips of road and I think how pretty it all is.
I am no longer exhausted by the flights. I am actually quite productive. I get my work done; sometimes I even get extra work done. I read the newspaper or books off of my beloved Kindle. I get geared up for the next city, the next group of amazing nurses and doctors- or better yet, back home to my family in Baltimore.

Labels: by Sorrel


Indiana – Working Together to Eliminate Health Care Acquired Infections

On Tuesday I spent the day with doctors, nurses and health care administrators from all around the state of Indiana. These health care providers had come to Indianapolis to attend a leadership conference put on by the Indiana State Department of Health.

The first ISDH leadership conference was in 2007. Seven hundred and twenty people came. This year, over 1,000 people participated. Preventing health care acquired infections was the focus of this meeting. It is a timely and important topic. Just last week, the Archives of Internal Medicinereleased a study showing that hospital acquired sepsis and pneumonia killed 48,000 people and cost $8.1 billion in extra health care costs in 2006. These are just two of the many hospital acquired infections that harm patients. The CDC estimates that there are 1.7 million health care acquired infections annually, and 99,000 patients die each year because of them.
This is a subject that means a great deal to me. A hospital acquired infection played a part in my daughter Josie’s death. This was a conference I needed to be a part of.
I have always enjoyed statewide collaborations on patient safety. It is exciting to follow the journey of a group of health care professionals from different facilities coming together, sharing information, helping each other achieve a goal that they all have in common. I had seen this happen in Michigan, Tennessee, and North Carolina. Now I hoped to be able to watch Indiana- a state I had been to three times in the past seven months (with two more visits scheduled in the next two months), a state where I was meeting hundreds of amazing health care providers, a state I was becoming very fond of- tackle this problem.
My job was to kick off the meeting. My goal was to inspire these health care facilities to join in this statewide collaboration. It would mean hard, hard work for those that signed up. It would mean reporting every single, ugly, little hospital infection that occurred- full, scary transparency. The ISDH had funding for some of the facilities to partake in this 18-month effort to reduce health care associated infections. I wanted them all to sign up, and I hoped that if that happened that somewhere, somehow the ISDH could dig up the extra funding.
I made the most of my 45 minutes speaking to the group. I hope I did a good job. I think I might have, but I won’t feel satisfied with what I did until I know that the collaboration is in full swing with a full load of facilities signed up and chomping at the bit to fix this problem.
Thank you, Indiana, for letting me be a part of such an important day. Keep up the good work. I’ll be rooting for you.
P.S.- The ISHD had copies of my book on hand during the lunch break. I enjoyed meeting so many wonderful people (mostly nurses) and I enjoyed having the honor of writing notes to them in the front pages of Josie’s Story. I am glad that there is a memory of Josie left behind in Indiana because I know her story will help push them the extra mile. Unfortunately the books sold out. To those who stood in line and did not receive a book, you can learn how to get a signed copy on our website. Thank you.

Labels: Book, Collaboration, Infections


“Josie’s Story” a National MS Society Books for a Better Life Winner

Last night, the National MS Society chose Sorrel’s book Josie’s Story as the winner in the “First Book” category of their Books for a Better Life Award. Many thanks to the New York City – Southern New York Chapter of the National MS Society for this honor. The recognition came on a particularly poignant day, as yesterday was the ninth anniversary of Josie’s death. Thanks again to the National MS Society, and everybody who has read and shared the book.

For more information on the Books for a Better Life Award and the National MS Society, visit their website.

Labels: Book, by Andrea