By Jonesa Rodriguez - May 08, 2023
When patients walk through Moffitt Cancer Center’s doors with their families, their hearts are often hopeful. They hope that their treatment will give them more time with loved ones and opportunities to make more memories. Their goal is to ring the bell and leave the cancer center with high hopes for the future. Although many patients and families achieve this reality, it is not the case for all. Families who lose loved ones to cancer often leave the center with heavy hearts and only their memories to comfort them.
A Small Gesture of Kindness
In Moffitt’s intensive care unit (ICU), Lauren Mankewich isn’t a stranger to patients who are nearing the end of life. As a nurse, she has guided many patients through the dying process.
“I remember when I started working at Moffitt as an oncology technician in the ICU,” Mankewich said. “On my first day, two or three patients passed. I just remember seeing the faces of their family members, and they looked helpless as they walked out of the unit.”
Mankewich says that seeing the families leave empty-handed always stuck with her.
“As a nurse, I am more connected with the family,” Mankewich added. “But when a patient passes, I can’t do much for the family. All I can say is: ‘I’m sorry for your loss. They fought hard through it.’ But I have nothing to give them.”
Mankewich knew Moffitt has several supportive programs to provide patients and families with additional resources through their cancer journey. But she wanted to provide extra support for one group in particular — those who are nearing end of life.
Wanting to do more to help families dealing with grief, Mankewich got online and started searching for ideas. She wanted to present the families with a keepsake of some kind so they wouldn’t leave the cancer center empty-handed. Mankewich found a legacy gift that sparked her creativity.
Her idea was to give the families one last memory: the patient’s heartbeat in a bottle.
From Idea to Reality
After presenting the idea and getting approval from her manager, Mankewich quickly went to work. She put up flyers around the ICU looking for volunteers. She knew the products that she needed were simple: a Protonix bottle, the patient’s electrocardiogram (EKG) strip and a label. She enlisted the help of the pharmacy department, which agreed to supply the bottles.
Mankewich spent long hours ensuring the bottles were properly cleaned and dried before meticulously and patiently applying the “Heartbeat in a Bottle” labels. She set the prepared bottles aside knowing that she could be adding an EKG strip and presenting the gift to a patient’s family at any moment during her shift.
“I wanted to present a gift to the family to help with the grieving process,” Mankewich said. “I wanted to give them something they could hold on to and remember their loved one.”
It wasn’t long before the bottles were used.
Heartbeat in a Bottle
The first bottle she presented was for a 16-year-old girl who had just lost her mother. Overcome with emotion, the young woman thanked Mankewich for the gift. The patient’s daughter looked down at the bottle and knew her mother would always be with her. She told Mankewich that she was going to get a tattoo of the EKG strip.
Since the initiative launched, more than 50 families at Moffitt have received a Heartbeat in a Bottle. Biweekly, Mankewich spends several hours soaking, cleaning and prepping 50 to 70 bottles at a time to ensure there are enough on hand.
From the first bottle presentation to now, Mankewich says the reactions have all been very emotional for the families. And while it is a small gesture to give to families, Mankewich wants team members to know that it goes a long way.
“When I present the bottles and explain what they are, the families usually burst into tears or start crying more than they already are,” Mankewich explained. “But they are very grateful.”