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F.V. nurses capture dying patients' heart readings for families before they say farewell

Sep 5, 2019

Two Fountain Valley nurses are taking clinical EKG readings and making them poetic and personal as mementos for families of dying patients.

Courtney Snyder and Lisa Ann Behrend, who provide emergency and critical care at Fountain Valley Regional Hospital and Medical Center, developed what they call Vials of Love — small glass vials holding narrow printed electrocardiogram strips that show the heart’s electrical signals as it beats.

They started handing out the vials, prepared during patients’ final hours, in November.

Behrend establishes relationships with families during emotionally demanding end-of-life care, so she gets a sense of who might be receptive, she said. She’s offered six of the keepsakes so far.

“I’ve had nobody say no,” she said. Rather, the survivors cry with gratitude, she added.

Not everybody can read an EKG, but most are familiar with the image of the peaked waves that literally show a person’s life force — more specifically, atrial contraction and ventricular depolarization, contraction and re-polarization — the heart rate and rhythm.

Symbolically, the heart represents love and spirit, and the reading shows individuality. Like fingerprints, no two people have identical heart rhythms, Snyder said.

She saw a similar memento on social media. That version put EKG strips inside blood collection tubes — on point with the cardiovascular theme — but she thought she could do better.

So she surveyed colleagues, who softened the concept by suggesting vials with cork stoppers, heart-shaped confetti, red lanyards and mesh drawstring pouches to hold the tiny bottles.

After doctors and nurses establish that a patient can no longer be treated and will die soon, they transition to comfort care. With sedation and pain medication, the patients are calm. The EKG readings show no distress, and the monitoring, which is standard, is non-invasive, Snyder and Behrend said.

Behrend explains the death process to families, which she believes helps them through the imminent end.

The memento is a gift and part of the process.

“Giving them closure is the biggest gift a nurse can give,” she said.

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