Oct 25, 2021
A mother mourning the loss of her daughter discovers that she has lost something else important to her.
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ELIZABETH CONROW: Access Denied, by Elizabeth Conrow. I lost my daughter, Amanda, in 2015. She was diagnosed with a brain tumor at age three and was in treatment for 2 and 1/2 years. Less than two weeks after she died, friends and family were getting on with their lives, but I was still in shock. I couldn't believe that Amanda was really gone.
Early in the day, I looked at my kitchen table and tried to imagine her eating a bowl of rice, an unusual breakfast for a five-year-old. But that was Amanda. My eyes filled with tears as they rested on the empty chair. She was really gone.
In that moment, standing in the kitchen, I struggled to remember every detail of who she was. It felt like the memory of her was slipping away. My heart beat quickened, and my mind raced with compulsive nagging thoughts. How tall was she the last time we were in the outpatient clinic? How much did she weigh?
I realized I would never be able to put her on a scale again or mark her height on the cupboard door. I fear that this information would be lost forever, just like Amanda. I moved to my computer and started to log on to our hospital's online patient portal to see if I could find answers to my questions.
How many times had I logged into this system looking for Amanda's test results or to message one of her doctors? How many times did it serve to confirm appointment times or remind me of medicine doses? I clicked the Sign In button, and my heart stopped. I couldn't get in.
Instead of viewing her chart, I saw an alarming red stop sign and a message saying "access denied." I stared at the screen in disbelief. Just two weeks after losing my daughter, I faced yet another heartbreaking and unexpected loss. I no longer had access to Amanda's medical records. I no longer had a connection to her medical team and the hospital family I had grown to love and care for.
Everything Amanda had been through for the last 2 and 1/2 years was gone. It was as if she never existed. She had vanished. I was caught off guard, deeply saddened, and utterly unprepared to have this connection to the hospital and this connection to Amanda ripped away.
I was confused and embarrassed by my emotions. I certainly didn't need this access. But I was devastated that it had been taken away. I reached out to my daughter's oncologist to ask how and why the patient portal had been turned off. I let him know that it was really important to me to be able to view Amanda's records, at least for a time.
It had never occurred to him that a parent might want to see this information again. He explained that it was a system designed safety measure that automatically turned off access to an account once a patient had died. I was the first parent to reach out to him with this question.
Amanda's oncologist immediately contacted the online records office to reactivate her chart so I could search out answers to some of my questions. It brought me so much comfort to be able to go back in and revisit her medical journey. As I thanked her doctor, I shared with him how important it was to protect families from this type of trauma. I didn't want another family to experience this pain.
He listened and helped put a manual reactivation system in place. Going forward when a child died, the online records office would manually reactivate each pediatric account individually. It wasn't a perfect solution, but it was a step in the right direction.
It has been six years since Amanda's passing. I am now the bereavement coordinator at the same hospital where she received care. When I started in this role, I was surprised to learn of several families who, like me, had been denied access to their child's medical record. Hadn't the hospital resolved this issue years ago?
I was frustrated that our institution hadn't found a better solution in the six years that passed. Last spring, as I followed up with bereaved families from our hospital, I had a conversation with a mother, Diane, that was hauntingly familiar and heartbreaking. Diane and I spoke on the phone shortly after the loss of her son, Evan. As we wrapped up our call, almost as an afterthought, she sheepishly asked about Evan's medical records being deactivated.
I was immediately brought back to my kitchen table and the pain I felt when I experienced this secondary loss just two weeks after losing Amanda. I knew why Diane felt silly asking about this. And I deeply understood her need to log in.
Diana explained that she was creating a record of everything Evan had been through, every transfusion, every chemo treatment, every inpatient and outpatient visit. And she could no longer complete that task. She shared her experience with me.
I know for me, it was really difficult to wake up that very next morning, literally only about 12 hours since he died and not be able to look at it. Even though I know there had been no additional tests run since the last time I had checked, it was my morning routine to look at it. I would check it each morning, even before I got up.
It had been that way for months while we were inpatient. First, looking at his ANC and counts, and then in the final month and a half, checking his bilirubin and liver numbers. There was always that hope that things were going to improve. This would be the day.
So that first and subsequent time was just a blunt reminder that he was gone and there would be no more checking. I wanted to go back and look at his results, too. Oddly, I thought it would make me feel closer to him and closer to the routine I had while he was alive.
Diane wanted to feel closer to her son. I wanted to feel closer to my daughter. Accessing a child's online medical portal is one way a parent begins to come to terms with this impossible loss. Snaman, et al, 2016, suggest that parents who are grieving significantly benefit from the creation and continuation of bonds with a child who has died. Revisiting a child's journey through the lens of the medical portal helps strengthen that bond.
As I looked through Amanda's chart and remembered various times we visited the hospital, it helped me picture her more clearly. And it helped me feel a connection to her that I was deeply longing for. Looking through a child's medical record, while painful, can be part of healing and connection. In addition to creating bonds with a child who has died, the medical portal helps parents stay connected to the hospital and the medical team that cared for their child.
According to additional research by Snaman, et al, 2016, bereaved parent's benefit from the ongoing support of a hospital throughout a time of grief. When a child dies, the secondary loss of the medical community can leave families feeling abandoned by those they have come to trust and depend on. Anyone who had taken care of Amanda felt like family to me.
Sending messages to Amanda's medical team after she died provided a feeling of familiarity when everything else around me was spiraling out of control. A continuing connection with the medical team through the online portal can positively impact grief outcomes for bereaved parents. Accessing a child's medical record provides a grieving family with an easy way to communicate with, and ask lingering questions of the medical team. Access to medical records should not end when a child dies.
The 21st Century Cures act acknowledges the need to provide patients with open notes and immediate access to medical information. As we implement real-time access for living patients, continuing access after a loss should also be considered essential.
Dr. Alan Wolfelt, from the Center for Loss, discusses the need to say hello to one's grief and welcome it before saying goodbye to the person who died. In those early months, saying hello to grief meant reading through Amanda's medical records, communicating with her medical team, and uncovering every connection I had to her while she was alive. In some small way, logging into Amanda's medical portal and discovering that she was 42 inches tall and weighed 41.2 pounds brought me immeasurable comfort. As parents grieve the loss of a child, comfort and connection should be readily available without having access denied.
SPEAKER 3: The guest on this podcast episode has no disclosures to declare.
SPEAKER 4: Welcome to Cancer Stories, The Art of Oncology podcast series. With me today is Elizabeth Conrow, bereavement coordinator at the University of Rochester Medical Center and the author of Access Denied. Welcome to the program, Liz.
ELIZABETH CONROW: Thank you so much for having me here. It's an honor to be here.
SPEAKER 4: It is our pleasure. And first of all, let me start by saying I was very moved by the piece. And I'm so sorry that you lived through this experience. And really interested in knowing how you transformed your personal grief into now, your profession.
ELIZABETH CONROW: Sure. Well, it's definitely been a process. Obviously, as a family, we never thought we would be down this road. I never thought I would have a child who had cancer. I never thought that I would have to go through the grief of losing a child and then comforting my own family, and my husband, and those around us through that experience.
And I can tell you that for the first couple of years, I really didn't feel equipped to do anything. I felt like I lost my confidence in anything that I had an ability to do prior to this. Simple things like making a meal for someone who was sick became way too overwhelming to even consider doing. So it was definitely a process of years.
But when the opportunity came up to work at Golisano Children's Hospital, the same place where Amanda had been cared for, the timing was right. And I knew that it was a great step to take and a way to honor Amanda's life, and really in some way, offer just a little bit of support and comfort to bereaved families, because I understood a little bit of what maybe they were going through. So it just seemed like a really good fit and a really good match for my experience at that point and a way to help and honor Amanda.
SPEAKER 4: Let's start by talking a little bit about Amanda. Tell us a little bit about her and her story.
ELIZABETH CONROW: Sure. Amanda is one of five children. So she was the fourth of the five. Very silly, loved to wrestle with daddy, had the biggest blue eyes that anyone had ever seen. She was just a delight and a joy.
And when she was 3 and 1/2, she was diagnosed with a brain tumor. And we were in the hospital for a number of days. She had surgery and a full resection. And we were told that if after a resection and radiation it never came back, that we would be good. But that if it came back, it would likely be terminal.
So we knew at the outset that this was-- we're not dealing with a cold or a headache. We're dealing with something pretty serious. So she went through the surgery beautifully. She went through all of her radiation treatments.
We did a clinical trial of chemotherapy. And six months from when she was diagnosed, we really felt like we did well. She did amazing. And we were ready to walk away from everything and just celebrate really, kind of getting through this.
And her very first follow-up scan two weeks after she was done with treatment-- her doctor, Dr. Koronas, called us and let us know the very devastating news that the tumor had returned, and it was all in her brain and down her spine and too many places to count. So six months from diagnosis, we knew that this was not going to end well. And we kind of had to struggle to prepare for that, as well as to recognize that in that moment, she was still Amanda. And she was still doing really well.
But we knew that time would be limited. And so we had actually a very good year and a half with her, as much as you can say that. She went through additional radiation treatments. And we continued to try other chemotherapies to do what we could. But ultimately, in February of 2015, surrounded by her family in our home she passed away.
And we then had a whole new struggle with grief and really, coming to terms with a new life and a devastating loss. But she was a joy. And she was a joy throughout it. So it was not all terrible.
SPEAKER 4: She sounds like an extraordinarily little girl. And in your essay, you start by telling us that just after she died, I think a few days or weeks, you're thinking about her, and you want to access her medical record through the portal that you had gotten used to using all the time. And then as you're logging in, you get the signal that says "access denied." And that triggered a tremendous wave of grief for you or something. Tell us a little bit about that and what you did with that.
ELIZABETH CONROW: Sure. I think I didn't realize at the time that I was really just trying to hang on to who she was, that I was trying to connect with her in some way. I mean, it was just two weeks after she had died. And I just-- I wanted access to see, what did she weigh? Goodness, if I could recreate her in the form of a stuffed animal, how long would she be? How much would she weigh?
And when I went to log in, it was a horribly devastating loss. It really felt like all of the sudden, I knew in my mind she was gone, but logging into this wealth of information that contained all of her blood counts and numbers and information that we had access so often, to all of a sudden have that gone. It was just a punch in the gut reminder that she truly was gone and that her records had disappeared.
And she just wasn't here. And I wasn't prepared for that. I really thought that I'd be able to go in and find the things I wanted to find and have peace about that. It was shocking to me.
And I remember feeling so embarrassed like, how can I call her doctor and say, I lost this access and I really need it? When she's not here, there's no reason. I don't need it. He's going to think I'm crazy.
But it was important enough to me that I reached out to him. And I said, you've got to help me. How can I still access this?
SPEAKER 4: So what happened next?
ELIZABETH CONROW: So he-- actually, I was pretty surprised. I was the first parent he said, that had ever reached out to him with this issue. And I thought, how is that possible? How is that possible?
And I'm guessing other parents had experienced it, but didn't know what to do, didn't know where to turn. And he was very compassionate. And he reached out to our online medical team, our portal team, and tried to figure out a way to reactivate the account for me. And got that done very quickly.
And I said, well, it's not enough that it's been reactivated for me. No other parent can go through this. We have to come up with a plan. And so he really did work very hard with our team here to come up with something that would hopefully fix the problem. And it did.
I know many families then, had their access turned back on manually, through a manual process that they put in place here. But I know that in the last six years, there have been several families who went to log in and had this experience. And unless you've been there and unless you've been the parent on the end of losing a child and then going in and having more taken away that you didn't expect, you don't understand the pain of that.
And so I think the driving force behind me really wanting to write this article was to say, I know that this isn't just my institution. I know this is happening across hospitals. I know that when a child dies, this access is turned off. And that really hurts families. And if there's a way to bring attention to that and say, hey, we can do better, we need to.
SPEAKER 4: Now that you have this perspective, I know that you have actually developed some training for oncology fellows and staff to train them a bit to talk with bereaved parents. What are some of the lessons that you want people to learn?
ELIZABETH CONROW: That's a great question. I'm working with another doctor here. It's an advanced communication training where we're helping young doctors share bad news for the first time. And it's amazing to me how afraid people are to approach the bereaved. And I guess, having been through it, I see now how poorly we really do bereavement and how afraid we are to kind of approach someone who's lost a child and just wrap our arms around them and say, I'm so sorry. I'm here with you.
Everybody wants to fix it. And there's no fix. And people don't want to approach a bereaved parent and bring up their child, because they don't want to make them sad. And what many people realize is that our children are always on our mind. You're not reminding us of anything we're not already thinking about.
I was pretty surprised after losing Amanda that someone could be on my mind all the time-- all the time when they're not here anymore. You know, you think about people here and there, time to time, people in your life. But once she was gone, she was right at the front of my mind and still is, every moment of every day.
And so if you see a bereaved person, it's OK to mention their child's name. I actually-- I go to the dentist. And the woman who cleans my teeth, every single time I go, will mention Amanda. And I know it's intentional. And I know it's because she wants me to know that she cares. And so those kinds of simple acts that people do as a way of recognizing and honoring the child whose passed means so much to a bereaved parent.
SPEAKER 4: Just listening to you and the emotion in your voice, I imagine it must have been difficult in a way to go back to the same place where Amanda was treated and now, work with the staff and the clinicians who treated her. Tell us a little bit about how you've managed those relationships?
ELIZABETH CONROW: One of the things I've learned, and that's partly through the role I have now in supporting other bereaved parents is that everyone grieves differently. And I know there are some parents who, the first time they come back to the hospital, it's really, really hard for them. And it's almost like a PTSD moment.
For me, I appreciated and cared about all of the medical staff so much that coming back here to me, was a need. I needed to get back here and find a way to connect with these doctors and nurses and the people who cared for Amanda so beautifully while she was here. In those first months of grief, I showed up at the hospital-- I remember there was one day I showed up, and I felt so lost. But I just needed to see those nurses and give them a hug.
And I felt awkward and out of place, because suddenly, I'm here and she's not with me. But I just needed to be in a place where she had been and a place that meant so much to us. So coming back here for me, certainly had its hard moments. And there have been challenges with it.
But it's been a place of comfort. And being able to talk about Amanda with other parents has really been a gift for me, because it's not an opportunity you have all the time, especially six years later to talk about the child who died. So it's been a gift.
SPEAKER 4: What is it like for you to be with other parents now who are going through what you experienced? How does your experience of loss influence your role as a counselor for a newly bereaved parents?
ELIZABETH CONROW: I do a lot of listening. I do a lot of listening. And there are some parents who I'll call and follow up with and check in on. And they're good. And they don't need anything.
And to be honest, I think when we first lost Amanda, if someone called me and I had never met them before, I might say I'm good. I don't really need any support right now. I've got my family.
But there are some parents who I will call, and they will talk to me for 45 minutes. And they will cry. And they will say, you're the first person I've been able to talk to about this, because you understand and you've been through it. And so I'm able just to listen.
And when they say things that they think are crazy, I wandered into my son's room and I slept in his bed last night, I say, I understand that. I once found Amanda's socks in a travel bag. And when I found them, I pulled them out and I slept with her socks. So there are things that people think are crazy that I'm able to help them normalize some of those feelings and understand that it's OK.
SPEAKER 4: I don't think it's crazy at all. You speak with such knowledge and also such empathy. I wonder if you can help us also understand how you see the clinicians now-- the doctors and nurses who are actually are caring for these patients-- how you see them react to the death of a patient and how they maintain their relationships with what the parents once the kids are gone?
ELIZABETH CONROW: It's been very interesting, I guess you could say to be on the other side of this, right? I was on the parents side before, where I was able to receive kind of the love and comfort and support of those who cared for Amanda. And I was able to see them showing up at the funeral and the ways that they would reach out and send notes and cards.
But now, being on this side working with many of those same people, I've been really struck, even during our weekly meetings when they talk about different cases and different families and the losses that they've had, how significantly it does impact them, and how much those families and those children really do mean to them. And you know, I've often sat there now wondering, well, what did they say about my family? What did they say about us?
And not a conversation I can go back to and sit in on. But I'm just struck by how much they really do care and how much it extends beyond this just being a job for most of-- all of them.
SPEAKER 4: Yeah, in your role now, in your professional role, what kind of changes have you implemented in the way clinicians and parents communicate, or the way the system communicates with parents?
ELIZABETH CONROW: At our hospital where I work, we have probably around 80 or 90 losses a year. And I came into this and said, I can support these families. And I can follow up with 80 or 90 families in a reasonable manner. But really, we need more parents doing this. We need to expand kind of what we're doing.
So I've been trying to work toward implementing a mentoring program of sorts, where bereaved parents who are a few years out in their grief can come alongside newly bereaved parents and really support them, one on one for a year or a year and a half to help them get through that time, so that it isn't just me. And as great as I am, I really know that we can do much, much better by parents if we expand kind of the support network that we have.
So I've been trying to grow some of our bereaved parent base. And those who can give input on some of the things we're doing-- because I know bereaved parents have so much wisdom and so much they can share from their own experiences.
SPEAKER 4: You sound like a force. I wonder, have you connected with other hospitals, other teams? Or is your-- are you concentrated on your hospital and your community?
ELIZABETH CONROW: The greatest support to me, actually has been St. Jude. They have such a fantastic program. Their bereavement, their parent support is really outstanding. Actually, just this week, I was able to sit in on one of their parent mentor trainings to kind of learn, well, how do you train your people, and what do you do? And so that was fantastic. So I'm really grateful-- grateful for their support. So they've been really wonderful.
SPEAKER 4: I imagine Amanda's passing really affected your entire family and the other kids. Can you tell us a little bit about how all the other kids dealt with their grief?
ELIZABETH CONROW: Sure. I know at the time when Amanda was diagnosed, my oldest was 9, and my youngest was 9 months. So everybody was pretty little. And they went through that at a really young age.
And then when she passed, my oldest was 11 and my youngest was 3. So they were still little. And they had been through what I consider to be significant trauma in those early years. And when things first happened, I mean, I had a therapist describe it to me as a children's mobile that hangs over their bed you know, that once it becomes imbalanced, it just tips on its side. And that's the way things felt at home for quite a while. You know, just nothing felt right and things felt out of order.
But kids are so resilient and so forward looking. And my kids really did beautifully through it. And I had someone tell me, well, kids are going to revisit grief. And they're going to come back to it from time to time. And it'll surprise you.
And I will say, that's so true. You know, I would think everything was going along OK and everyone was coping well. And then, my daughter Jessica, who was closest in age to Amanda, would come down at 10 o'clock at night in tears because she was thinking about her sister. And that would catch me a little bit off guard.
And my oldest just went away to college. And she's now 18. And she's had some conversations with me lately just about everything they went through and really revisiting some of her feelings about it all. And so they don't really get over it. But helping them to kind of process it and work through it and really, just talk about her. We talk about her constantly.
She's a part of everything we do. We still make her a birthday cake. So we just keep her memory alive and celebrate her life together. But grief for kids is certainly different, and it doesn't end. But they are definitely forward looking and really can handle more than I think sometimes we give them credit for.
SPEAKER 4: And your husband and you I hear have also been involved in some activities to talk about this publicly or teach others. What was that like for you as parents?
ELIZABETH CONROW: There are a few things that we've really wanted to help move forward in terms of childhood cancer awareness and things that people can do to really help bereaved parents. And I think there's just so much that people don't know or understand. Many people don't realize how underfunded childhood cancer is. So it just means a lot to us to be able to kind of get that message out now.
SPEAKER 4: I imagine there's so much work to do. And as we've had this great opportunity to chat about Amanda to remember her, to think about your experience and the amazing work you seem to be doing-- are there any final comments that you want to share with our listeners?
ELIZABETH CONROW: It's an honor for me to really share this experience. And that bereaved parents need support, and they need to know that people care and remember, even as time goes on. So just take good care of those who know who are grieving. And love one another.
SPEAKER 4: Thank you so much. This is Liz Conrow, author of Access Denied, published in Journal of Clinical Oncology. Thank you very much. Until next time.
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