I don’t particularly like Halloween. I never really have. The candy makes everyone feel sick; the pumpkin carving is difficult even when you have the special little tools; and the costumes- it’s just too hard to decide what to be. Three of my children- the teenagers- luckily have sort of outgrown it, except now instead of having to worry about costumes I have to worry about what they are doing as they run around the neighborhoods with a bunch of other teenagers at night. Eight-year-old Sam is still into the trick-or-treat thing. Every year I have grand plans of the two of us making his costume together, and every year we end up going to the “costume express” website where he picks out a costume (which usually comes with a plastic weapon of sorts and probably has a “Made in China” label somewhere on it). We type in a credit card number and pay for express shipping because we put it off until the last minute.
Last year, though, I started to think about Halloween a little bit differently, thanks to a special person named Cindy. Cindy makes Halloween feel a little bit like Christmas here at the Josie King Foundation. I met her a few years ago when I was speaking to a group of doctors and nurses. She was in the audience not because she was a doctor or a nurse, but because her husband died from medical errors in 2008.
I remembered Cindy because after that speech she handed me a sealed envelope with the word “confidential” printed on the front and she had tears in her eyes. I didn’t open the envelope until I was on the plane heading home. In the letter she told me about her husband Steve and the medical errors that led to his death.
Steve’s birthday was on Halloween. He loved Halloween. Each year, he would decorate his garage with strobe lights, flying witches and scary sounds that reverberated a block away. He loved to sit out front and greet all the neighborhood children who came to trick or treat and wish him a happy birthday. He would give them handfuls of candy, and then he would bring out the good stuff- little scary presents like glow necklaces, flashing teeth and pumpkin pins.
As the first Halloween without Steve approached, Cindy struggled with what to do. Should she go out of town? Should she visit a friend and pretend Halloween didn’t exist? She couldn’t possibly put on a happy face, greet the trick-or-treaters with a smile and do what her husband was meant to be doing. A part of her wanted to shut the door on it all and just leave a bowl of candy on the doorstep.
That year Cindy read my book Josie’s Story. She told me that she felt a connection to the book and to the Josie King Foundation. She knew what she was going to do for that first Halloween. She was going to dedicate Halloween to her husband and to raising awareness on patient safety. She purchased a case of books and placed them next to the bowl of candy. As the trick-or-treaters rang the doorbell she handed them the candy and the little presents, just as Steve had done. Then she took a copy of Josie’s Story and handed one to each parent who committed to reading it, and asked that they spread the word on the need to make medical care safer.
A few weeks ago, as the weather cooled off and the leaves in Baltimore began to turn red, yellow and orange, Cindy contacted the Josie King Foundation again. She told us that for this Halloween she would like to hand out Care Journals, our little green book for patients and families to help them track new, complicated medical information during a stay in the hospital. Once again Cindy will follow through with what her husband would have wished- candy and little presents for the children, along with doing what she can to educate her friends and neighbors on patient safety and the need to prevent medical errors.
Thank you, Cindy, for your support and for the generous donation to the Josie King Foundation. Thank you for your work in preventing medical errors. Most of all, thank you for making this a special day to remember Steve- even for those of us who never knew him.
Happy Halloween to you, and to everyone else.