September 11, 2020

Hospital’s pinwheel garden celebrates the joy of returning COVID patients to health

Annie Burford stands amid the Pinwheel Garden of Hope and Health at Franciscan Health Indianapolis where each pinwheel represents a COVID-19 patient who has returned to health. Burford is a respiratory clinical specialist at the hospital. (Photo by John Shaughnessy)

Annie Burford stands amid the Pinwheel Garden of Hope and Health at Franciscan Health Indianapolis where each pinwheel represents a COVID-19 patient who has returned to health. Burford is a respiratory clinical specialist at the hospital. (Photo by John Shaughnessy)

By John Shaughnessy

Annie Burford smiles when she sees the pinwheels twirling in the afternoon breeze, forming a multi-color celebration of life.

As a respiratory clinical specialist for Franciscan Health, Burford delights in knowing that each of the 423 pinwheels represents a COVID-19 patient who has been discharged from the health care system’s Indianapolis and Mooresville hospitals as of Sept, 8.

And the 42-year-old mother of two savors sharing the story of the patient she thought of when she planted one of the pinwheels in what has become known as the Pinwheel Garden of Hope and Health.

“She was the first person we were able to get off the ventilator,” recalls Burford, who was instrumental in setting up the Indianapolis hospital’s COVID Cohort Unit in March. “When that happened, all the nurses and all the respiratory therapists stood outside the room and cheered for the patient. It was so awesome.”

So was the sendoff the woman received on the day she was released from the hospital.

“The hospital announced they were going to play the Rocky [theme] song when she was discharged,” Burford notes. “They were playing the song, and employees were lined up in the hospital as they brought her down in a wheelchair. Everyone was clapping and cheering. She had her arms raised up. She was so excited to leave. It was very emotional.”

‘This has been so overwhelming’

“Very emotional” is also the way that Burford describes the past six months of caring for coronavirus patients.

“In the 20 years I’ve been doing this, it’s the hardest time I’ve had to work through. Everything that I’ve learned in the past 20 years came to this moment where we had to change everything we did to adapt to this pandemic.”

Like many health care workers on the front lines of the crisis, Burford has bonded with patients in a way she had never done before, becoming like family to patients who couldn’t be visited by their families.

She also saw some of her patients lose their battle with the disease and made the heartbreaking phone calls to their loved ones.

“I’ve also bonded with people who were able to come off the ventilator and go home. That’s why I love the pinwheel garden so much. It’s an amazing way to celebrate the patient’s success after recovering from the coronavirus. I know when I planted my pinwheel, I also thought about all the staff who worked so hard to keep the patient alive.”

Burford even brought her 16-year-old son Corey and her 13-year-old daughter Samantha to the hospital to see the pinwheel garden—a rare time when she has shared her work experience with them.

“I usually try not to bring up work when I come home. I just slip into being a mom. But this has been so overwhelming, I couldn’t help it. I would talk to them about things. They saw how emotional and draining it was for me. When they saw the pinwheels, they thought it was awesome.”

Celebrating the ‘little miracles’

Franciscan Sister Marlene Shapley has also experienced the powerful impact of being there when a COVID patient has been discharged from the hospital.

“They’re overcome by the emotion of going home,” says the vice president of mission integration for Franciscan Health.

Sister Marlene has also been moved by personally planting pinwheels in the garden.

“It’s a very touching experience. You realize you’re putting it in because someone went home. We’re celebrating the success and the hope.

“St. Francis was a joyful person who lived the Gospel as Jesus lived it—respecting the life God has given us. Our pinwheel garden is an exterior sign of sharing our joy with the community around us—and with our staff. Many times, we celebrate the little miracles of someone getting better, someone being taken off a ventilator, someone requiring a little less level of care.”

Nearly every department of the hospital has been involved in planting the pinwheels, from nursing to engineering, from respiratory to housekeeping.

“They all touch the patient’s life in one way or another,” Sister Marlene says. “We wanted to get every department involved in celebrating our successes.”

After 42 years in health care, Sister Marlene long ago learned that the successes also come amid setbacks and sorrows. And while her years as a nurse are behind her, the caring approach of that profession and the faith of her life as a religious sister have continued to guide her during this devastating time of the coronavirus.

“Even though I don’t have direct care of a patient, I’m a part of Franciscan, and I think, ‘Maybe there’s something I can do to help.’ I can hold their hand. I can pray with them. I can cry with them.”

She followed that approach recently when the brother of one of her fellow Franciscan sisters was admitted into the Indianapolis hospital with the virus.

A combination of caring and consoling

“He was critical and declining rapidly,” she recalls softly. “The family had to make the decision that nothing could be done and to take him off the ventilator. I sat with that family and cried with that family. As difficult as it was, it was a beautiful experience for his children to be here and to go in and say goodbye.”

She pauses as the power of those emotions touch her again.

“It doesn’t get easier,” she says, even more softly. “I’ve lost three brothers and both of my parents. The pain never goes away, but we learn to live with the pain.”

She takes a breath and her voice turns hopeful as she reconsiders her previous use of the word “goodbye.”

“We as Catholics believe we will be reunited in eternity. We don’t say ‘goodbye.’ We say, ‘We’ll see you later.’ Because we believe in the resurrection of the body and the soul—and the reuniting of the body and soul in eternity.”

Sister Marlene says the combinations of caring and consoling, of celebrating and comforting, reflect the core of the health care system’s mission statement: “Continuing Christ’s ministry in our Franciscan tradition.”

“We’re not beginning a ministry,” she says. “We’re continuing a ministry that Jesus started 2,000 years ago and

St. Francis continued 800 years ago and our founder, Blessed Maria Theresia Bonzel, continued more than 150 years ago.

“Jesus was human. He was a teacher. He was a healer. He laughed. He cried.

“Our mission statement is not something that hangs on our walls. It’s lived within our halls every day.” †

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