Ernie: A Funeral Home Therapy Dog’s Story of Love & Service

Dale and Jodi Clock adopted Ernie in July of 2007.  They had been looking for a second

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Ernie – Just a few days old.

therapy dog for their funeral home, as Max, their then therapy dog, was both getting older and being requested to be present at our other locations. It was their hope that Max would have been able to act as a mentor to Ernie and assist with showing him the ropes.

The week before Ernie was scheduled to come to his “furr-ever” home, Max died as a result to kidney failure. Ernie had big paws to fill! Not only did he fill, them – he solidly blazed his own trail. There was no doubt he barked and wagged his tail to his own beat.

From that day Ernie became part of both the Clock’s personal family, and the Clock Funeral Home family. At the age of 12 weeks, he rarely missed a day going to work. He had several beds, toys and water bowls under employee’s desks or in their offices throughout the facility so he could explore and learn the footprint of our 40,000 square foot building in downtown Muskegon. Each day he would look not only to his parents (Dale & Jodi), but to the Clock employees for assistance in potty training, finding his way back to the front office, and worked the system for treats.

It wasn’t long until Ernie figured out that the mailmen, UPS drivers

Born to be wild! Four years later posing on the same Harley.

and Fed Ex team also brought tasty treats too! Regardless of what was taking place, he knew the sound of their vehicles and would race to greet them at the door, walk with them to the office, follow them to the restroom and wait at the door until they appeared again, then walked them back to the front door. It didn’t take long for him to realize that when he did this, he received a two treats, rather than just the one when they came in.

Ernie was a slow learner when it came to earning his certification for being a therapy dog. In the initial phases of training, he was easily distracted, more interested in exploring and playing then learning the required behaviors to receive the designation. He was in training for a couple of years before he actually passed the requirements.

Prior to his certification, Ernie remained active in helping heal families within our funeral home and community. He would go visit the local schools to help teach them what working dogs do, as well as acclimate students how to meet and greet an unknown pet, to avoid a biting situation.

Not only was Ernie a familiar face in the community, he was a familiar face with one of our local hospices. He had a few fans that requested him on a regular basis to come and visit them in their final days. Outside of making visits to hospice, he was also on call for in-home hospice visits. It wasn’t out of the ordinary for Ernie to provide not only tail wags and kisses for the patient, but also the patient’s family members. There were times when Ernie and the family would simply play, which enabled the family to laugh and smile during a tumultuous time.

Ernie and Jodi leading the walk on the “ruff ruff” route.

He also become the face for Clock Timeless Pet’s partnership with The Scholnik Healing Center and Mercy Hospice’s annual community fundraiser called “People, Pooches & Picnics.” This event raised money for hospice via an organized community walk for people and their leashed pets ending with a picnic at the Scholnik Healing Center. This event has become so successful that a by-product of this year’s event was a new program called the “Furr-Ever” re-homing trust. The premise of this is to raise money for animals who parents are in hospice care and need to be re-homed, rather than go to a kill shelter. Ernie’s legacy will live on through this program.

Ernie was most attached to his dad Dale. It wasn’t uncommon for Ernie to be at Dale’s side during a family’s arrangement conference, be present at the gathering or visitation and finally attend the funeral. In fact, there were times that Ernie would join Dale walking up the isle to dismiss families when a funeral had ended. It was the rarest occasion when Ernie wasn’t present at an arrangement conference or a visitation.

Ernie did however have one big fear – loud noises or gunshots. This fear was not a result of thunderstorms, he connected it with our Veteran clients who received their military rights at the end of their funeral service. Somehow, Ernie knew that when people came into the facility dressed in a military uniform, the gunshots would follow. The minute he saw any of the good military volunteers enter the building, he high tailed it to the farthest end of the building and hide under someone’s desk. He would only come back to the front after the twenty one gun salute was over and “Taps” was played. This was quite disappointing to the retired military volunteers as they loved Ernie. They would always bring treats and sometimes a special toy for him to try to let him know that they were good guys who were just honoring a fallen comrade.

Ernie loved making doggie snow angels!

When Ernie wasn’t working, he went home with Dale and Jodi. At home, he was just one of the herd. He knew the difference between being at home and working. When he was home, his favorite pastimes included long walks, terrorizing the cats, doing doggy snow angels and barking at the sliding glass door. He also loved to go for car rides, especially to the family cottage in South Haven. He had the ride timed out and knew exactly when the car was transitioning from the highway to the entrance ramp. When this occurred he would always jump up, insist that the window go down and he took in the smells of Lake Michigan. He knew that when he was at the cottage, the walks were longer and more frequent. (He also knew that he would most likely be selecting a treat from the local pet bakery downtown.)

In the prime of his life, he was stricken with lymphoma. The timeline from discovering the onset of an illness, receiving a diagnosis and his death was less than ten days. During that time Ernie only acted ill one day. That was the day he died. Ernie, to his core was a true therapy and comfort dog. In his final few moments while taking his last few breaths, he was licking my tears away as if he was telling me, “It’s okay – I’ll be waiting for you and dad when it’s their turn to join me at the Rainbow Bridge.

A memorial service was held to honor “Ernie Clock,” Clock Funeral Home’s Therapy Dog, on Thursday, February 12, 2015 at 6:30 Clock Funeral Home’s Muskegon Chapel on Peck Street in Muskegon. This service was open to the community. Many people and their leashed pets came to honor Ernie’s life.  In retrospect, Ernie’s life brought comfort, tail wags and doggie kisses to over 2,200 families who Clock’s had the honor of serving. His legacy will live on, through the stories that will be told by those he helped make a bad day, just a litter better.

Ernie left behind his parents Dale and Jodi, his sisters Kellie, brother Brett and his wife Kelly, Nephew Gavin  and four legged siblings Lucy (a neurotic Pomeranian), Dutchess (a blind deaf sheltie), Tinkie, Yama and Stevie (all Siamese) cats.


My Pet Just Died! Eight Things You’ll Need To Know.

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If your family’s beloved bird, cat or dog just died suddenly, would you know what to do? If not, you’re not alone. People ask “what to do” on a regular basis. Here are eight things every pet parent or pet sitter must know when a pet dies at home.

When we make the decision to bring a pet into our home, the majority of us do our homework. Topics of conversation and planning revolve around house breaking, cage training, socialization and overall behavior, but rarely does the topic of the loss or a pet, or death ever come up. For the next few minutes we’ll review the necessary actions that every pet parent or pet sitter should know.

  1. First and foremost, as strange as it sounds, make sure the pet is deceased! I can’t tell you how many times

    Check to see if your pet is in a deep sleep.

    people think their pet has died, only to discover that they are still alive, just breathing very shallow and lying still. (Note that if they are still alive, you may want to think about euthanizing. Please call your vet clinic, they can answer your questions.  If you were planning to let them die naturally, keep the area calm and quiet).

  2. After a pet dies, their bowels, just like people will release. It will not happen immediately, but know that over the next few moments nature will take its course, so be prepared. If your pet is lying on the floor or a piece of furniture, you will want to make sure you have a towel or even place something plastic under their hind quarters.

  3. If there are other pets at home, let them smell their friend. By allowing this to happen they will understand what happened to their buddy, rather than leave them wondering where they went.

  4. A decision will need to be made to either bury or cremate.

  5. If you want to keep your pet at home for a day to decide what to do, you will want to contain your pets remains. Why? Without being placed in cold storage, the pet’s body will begin to decompose (this presents a health risk!). One stage of this process is known as rigor mortise. This is when the energy supply to the pet’s muscles deplete. When this occurs, everything becomes stiff. The average time for “rigor” to set in is 3-4 hours and its typically complete within 12 hours post death.

  6. Depending on the position your pet was in when it died, you will want to tuck their front and back legs tight

    “Paw Pod” The echo friendly pet casket

    into their body (known as positioning), rather than leaving the pet outstretched. Why? Primarily for transportation and burial reasons. If you want to transport you pet, you will want to place them in a container or even wrap them up in a blanket. If their limbs are not properly positioned they will be difficult to transport or place in a pet casket or secure container.

  7. If you bury, you’ll want to follow the city or township’s ordinances, if you cremate you’ll need to make arrangements for your pet’s transportation to the cremation provider.

  8. If you come home and your pet died while you were away – you’ll need to attempt to decide how long the pet has been deceased. If rigor mortise has set in, you’ll know it was at least 3 hours. Depending on the time of year, if its warm outside, you may have an odor that could be difficult getting out of your carpet or even floor.  Don’t try to remove this smell out of your carpet/floor yourself, consult a professional. In the long run, it will be worth it.

Fireworks and Dogs Don’t Mix: What to do if Your Dog Becomes Lost.

1ASPCA Fireworks and Lost Dogs Fireworks and dogs are a recipe for a lost or runaway animals. Watching fireworks may be a fun family activity, but don’t expect your pet to enjoy the fun. This post will help you create a plan if your dog  becomes lost. You are invited to also download the  free ASPCA’s recommended plan for lost pets called: Fireworks & Reuniting Lost Dogs with Their Families. ASPCA Fireworks and Lost Dogs.

Did you know at July 5th is one of the busiest days for animal shelters and governmental animal control facilities?  Not only does intake and occupancy increase, sadly so do the amount of pets who die unnecessarily from a preventable accident. Below is a true story of a dog names Sophie. Her pet parents wanted others to learn from their experience.

Like all golden retrievers, Sophie loved playing in the water. She had been at the beach all day with the kids, she was exhausted. So tired that neither her food or a leftover burger was of interest to her.  She was down for the count and laying on the bed in the camper. That was 8:00 p.m.  on July 3rd, 2015.  Shortly before the fireworks started, Mrs. Johnson went to the camper to grab a sweatshirt. Sophie had started to rally and wanted to go outside and go potty. As she opened the camper door, the teenagers in the tent at the campsite next to them shot off bottle rockets and caps. The noise was so loud that sounded like gunshots. This startled Sophie and she bolted. It was that fine line between dusk and daylight and it was hard to see exactly which direction she ran.

Mrs. Johnson texted the family immediately to join her in the search for Sophie, as they were making s’mores around the campfire waiting for the annual fireworks show over Lake Michigan. The family split up and began the search. The went up and down the campsite, across the road to the beach and literally canvassed the area until midnight before they called it a night. Everyone at the campground knew Sophie was missing and that she belonged to the Johnson’s.  What made the search even more difficult is that the town where the campsite resides literally triples in population for the “Light Up the Lake” show.  People come from miles around and begin lining up chairs on the bluff, towels on the beach around 8 a.m. to claim their spot so they can watch the 10:00 pm show. The town’s population triples and traffic is always insane and chaotic at best.

Mr. Johnson couldn’t sleep, his fear was that the children would wake up only to find her by the side of the road, so he walked up and down the road until dawn calling out Sophie’s name and looking for her. He was hoping that someone would have realized she was lost and took her in for the night and then find her contact information on her collar. No such luck.  In the morning the rest of the family resumed the search.  Mrs. Johnson called the police and went to the local animal shelter.  What she learned was that many other families had a similar story.  The shelter director told her that the day after the 4th of July is always the busiest day for them and frankly all animal control or rescue organizations.  She went on to education and remind everyone in line that animals are innately afraid of loud noises such as thunder and especially firecrackers. Their instinct is to run and hide. The director further went on record to saying that the majority of the pets who are brought to the shelter do not have proper tags, identification or even micro-chipping. Therefore, after 3 days the dogs are placed up for adoption. Fortunately, this shelter was a no-kill shelter. Mrs. Johnson left a photo of Sophie, along with her contact information. If Sophie somehow made it to the Shelter, she knew they would be reunited as her collar, tags and micro-chip were all current.  As she left the shelter, she felt hopeful.

The 4th was on a Friday, so the family made a decision to stay over one more night. They thought that just maybe since the campground and traffic settled down that Sophie might just find her way back to their camper. After all, stranger things have happened.  The next morning, they were awakened by the sound of Mr. Johnson’s cell phone ringing.  It was the local marina that was about 5 miles south of the campsite.  They were calling to see if they had lost a dog. Mr. Johnson’s stomach began to have butterfly’s as looked at the anticipation on his family’s faces only to feel like he was punched in the gut.  The marina owner said that they did not have Sophie, however they did have her collar. It had washed up ashore.  It was then, Mr. Johnson had to come to the realization that Sophie somehow slipped her collar. Did she drown? Did someone take her, remove her collar to claim she was a stray and give her a home? The scenarios were countless. Regardless, it was gut wrenching.  The Johnson’s packed up and headed for home.  On the way home, they stopped at the marina to get Sophie’s collar as they were planning to head home and make a shadow box with pictures of her and place her collar in it.  They believed she was dead. Three days later, the marina owner saw a stray golden hanging by the dumpster looking for scraps. The dog was clearly scared, hungry and lost. The owner remembered finding the collar and assumed that this was the dog it belonged too.  He called down to one of the mechanics in the garage and asked if he could help catch the stray.  They made a trail of food using dog treats and lunch meat which lead her to the back of the garage, there they placed a bowl of water.  While the dog was drinking they quickly closed the garage door.  As the men approached the golden, they noticed it was a female and that her fur was matted, covered with burrs, small twigs, and mud.  She looked like she had come out from the woods across the street and made her way to the beach searching for water and food.

The marina owner remembered finding the collar with the name Sophie on it and assumed that this was her.  When he called her by name, she came running to him with her tail wagging.  Sophie’s owners phone number was still in his cell phone. He took a picture of Sophie and texted it.  Within minutes his phone rang and it was Mr. Johnson. He couldn’t believe that Sophie was alive and unharmed. They family was still grieving her loss and feeling guilty for not having her leased at the campsite. Mr. Johnson could not wait to bring Sophie home and re-unite her with the family.

Sophie’s story had a happy ending, this is not the norm.  Fireworks are beautiful, but the stress and anxiety it causes dogs, cats, horses and other animals is real.  Animals need to contained or restrained on a lease.  Animals should not be left outside in their yard, fenced in or not – as they have been known to dig out, jump over or worse yet harm themselves or bite someone out of fear. This also brings to light the importance of having your pets micro-chipped above and beyond providing a custom collar with their identification tags.  When traveling with your animals, don’t assume they will stay close to your side, leash them. Keep photos of your pet on your phone.

If your pet does become lost:

  • Canvas the area
  • Contact the police, area animal shelters, vet clinics
  • Get the message out on Facebook. Most communities have a local “informed” page where this can be posted. The power of social media is enormous – get the work out immediately!
  • Contact the local radio stations and even local television
  • If your animal is micro-chipped – contact the company and alert them
  • Go to the area shelters daily
  • Place a “Pet Amber Alert”
  • Most of all….do not give up!
  • Download the ASPCA Fireworks and Lost Dogs

How to Care for Your Pet After You Die

Jodi Clock with Dutchess
Jodi Clock snuggles with her rescue dog Dutchess who is a blind deaf Sheltie

Ever wonder what happens to a pet after their owner dies? Learn how to create a pet trust or care plan through, it could save your pet’s life!

There’s a widespread problem escalating across the country. It’s a heartbreaking and unintentional scenario that is occurring daily in every state, city, even in rural area. This widespread situation, often turns into a silent killer.

Once loved pets are now homeless with no plan for re-homing!.It was reported approximately 2,626,418 people die annually. An estimated 1.7 million people enter nursing home care annually. Gallup Polls Research has reported that that 73% of the population has a pet. That’s potentially 3,158,285 pets, whose pet parents have either died or entered a nursing home facility and have perchance become homeless.

At our family funeral or cremation memorial center and pet loss facility (Clock Family Services), re-homing pets have become an increasing topic of conversation among adult children whose parents have recently died. It’s a common occurrence for a family member to call or stop in asking for solution to re-home their parent’s dog, cat, or bird (often there are multiple pets in the home).

If we don’t provide a recommendation the feedback we hear ranges from: having them euthanized, taking them to a shelter (many are kill-shelters), or even worse, leave them behind in the empty home for someone else to hopefully find and deal with or simply open the door and release them out in the open.

Why? There are numerous reasons, but at the end of the day it doesn’t resolve the issue. What will begin to solve this serious matter is to become pro-active as a family and have a conversation. This topic should become a part of one’s normal estate planning.

As a pet parent, it’s our responsibility to ensure that when our life ends that there is a plan in place to care for the loyal companions who gave us unconditional love, not to mention company. One can’t assume that our children, relatives, friends, or neighbors will care for our pets.

golden-retriever-662817_960_720If we are fortunate enough to know that someone will care for our pets, we should recognize the fact that our pet will have a loving home, but that comes with an expense. There are annual vet clinic wellness check-ups, vaccinations, pet sitters, grooming, food and even their end of life expenses. As pets age their health may become compromised and could require special diets or medications. When their quality of life ends and they die either naturally or from a kind euthanasia, there will be a cost for pet cremation or burial.

When there are no friends or relatives who are willing to provide a loving home for your pet, in order to ensure your pet does not go to a kill shelter and is re-homed properly, this comes with a cost. Regardless if your pet is taken to a breed specific rescue, foster home, or shelter there are costs associated with their interim care. One of those costs are advertising and interviewing potential pet families to see if their home is a good fit, not to mention the same maintenance costs that were mentioned above.

The more financial resources you can allocate for your pet’s needs, the better chance of guaranteeing their lifestyle remains minimally disrupted until they are re-homed. By doing this simple act of incorporating a pet plan in to your personal planning, you will have gained the peace of mind in knowing your pet will receive compassionate care and your family will benefit from not having the guilt, stress, or anxiety a that comes with finding a humane solution.

For all the reasons above, Clock Timeless Pets is proud to announce our affiliation and endorsement of PetWill. With PetWill, pet parents can:

• Safeguard pets from being abandoned, sold, or put down.

• Place (and update) your pet’s care instructions for each pet in their “Online Profile.”

• Ensure your pet’s safety as a beloved family member with a lifetime of care.

The PetWill Pet Trust document is an inexpensive stand-alone trust designed to be valid in all 50 states. When you have a PetWill, your pets may be protected as soon as possible via the agreed upon guardians. You may list up to three guardians for each of your pets in your PetWill.

If you are not ready to start a pet care plan financially, please consider starting a non-funded pet plan. At minimum, by doing this, it’s considered an informal plan and lets your loved one’s know your intentions for your pets after your death. To start this, please download our free “Pet Parents Guide to Planning Ahead”. When this is completed, please place it with your important documents or consider making copies and give them to your family or even your vet clinic.

What to Expect When an Autopsy is Required

INGMRF-00092853-001Recently a young mother of five became a widow. Her husband and the father of her children was coming home at dusk on a Friday evening.

They lived in the country and their home is nestled in-between dirt roads. He’s usually home by 6:45 p.m. and the ritual of their Friday night pizza was already in the works. There was nothing unusual about this day except for the fact that he was late.

His wife didn’t become too concerned until she looked at the clock and realized almost two hours had gone by and he hadn’t called or texted. As she began to reach into her purse for her cell phone the doorbell rang. Her 13-year-old son answered the door as she was rounding the corner only to see two state policemen standing there. Before they could say anything, she instinctively knew that her husband wasn’t ever coming home. She was right. He had died just three miles away from their home in a car accident.

What was odd, is that there were no other vehicles or individuals involved and the car had appeared to roll over numerous times requiring the”Jaws of Life” to extract him from the car. What was even more disturbing to her was that he had driven this road hundreds if not thousands of times and knew every inch of it like the back of his hand.

The police had shared that they ran his license plate and it matched his driver’s license, which of course led them to what they assumed to be both his home and family. During this very painful and unexpected conversation, the police attempted to explain what their standards and protocols were, which also included decisions regarding a funeral home to contact.woman-1006102_1920

She tried to comprehend what the police were saying as her world came crashing down around her and all she could think or say was take me to him I want to see him.”I need to see him,” she screamed.

The police very factually explained that she would be unable to see him as he had been taken from the accident scene and had been transported at the request of the medical examiner to the hospital for an autopsy to be performed. She didn’t understand – autopsy, why? There were so many questions she needed answered and decisions to make, all of which she was unprepared for. The police handed her a card that had the Medical Examiner’s contact information on it along with a number assigned to her husband’s case. From this point on, any questions she had regarding her husband’s death, were to be addressed by the medical examiner.

Before the police left she gave them the name of the funeral home she would like for him to be taken to.

The above story is true, right down to the Friday night pizza ritual. The balance of this content is to share with you both what to expect when someone you love dies and the medical examiner requires an autopsy.

First and foremost, if you aren’t clear on the definition of autopsy, it’s a term used to determine the “how” death occurred, after death or commonly referred to as postmortem. The law requires that if a person dies and they are not under are not under the care of hospice, admitted and under doctor’s care in a hospital, or diagnosed as being terminally ill, a medical examiner must be contacted.

This is required even if individual dies in an emergency room or the elderly simply die in their sleep. The purpose is to ensure there is no foul play and or determine the exact cause of death.

Science and experience has taught us that things aren’t always as they appear. In this case, the police had ruled out alcohol but needed the blood work to back it up. Distracted driving via the telephone and texting was also ruled out. Due to the numerous roll overs, the assumption was he was driving at a high speed and hit a bump in the road and lost control. This is what the physical evidence points too.

What can’t be ruled out is a heart attack, stroke or other physical aliment. The only thing that can rule this out is a complete examination of the internal organs.

32060530823_8bde2382acWhen an autopsy is preformed, the body is off limits to anyone except the care team conducting the autopsy. Depending on when death occurred and the county death happened in, this process can take anywhere from 24 hours once the medical examiner receives the body upwards to a week before the body is transported to the family’s funeral home. Once the body is released into the funeral home’s care then and only then can the next of kin view the body.

It’s important for the next of kin to understand this timeline. It’s also critical to understand that when the body is returned to the funeral home, it’s not view-able, at least right away. This does not mean that the person has been dismembered as seen on television or the movies. What it does mean is that the body and any bruises, distinguishing marks or tattoos were documented.

Typically, a “Y” incision is made in the chest and abdomen to gain access to the internalbody chart organs. An incision is made beginning from each shoulder down to the center of the chest and then a single incision down to the pubic bone. The medical examiner then removes the internal organs one by one and takes samples, examines and weighs each one. Some of the samples are sent to the lab for further testing. A second incision is sometimes made on the back of the head from behind the ear all the way around to behind the other ear. A portion of the skull is then cut out and the brain is removed for examination. When the medical examiner is satisfied with everything the organs are returned to the abdominal and cranial cavity in a plastic bag and the incisions are loosely sewn back together.

It’s now up to the science and the medical community to confirm the actual time and cause of death. This portion of the process can take anywhere from six hours to six months. If the cause of death can not be determined right after the autopsy then the medical examiner provides the funeral home with a death certificate that states the cause of death is “pending.”

Once the above process is complete, the deceased is released to the care of the family’s designated funeral home. If the family (and most of them do) want to say a final farewell and physically view their loved one, several things must take place.

The funeral director will need at least one day to make the body presentable for their next of kin to see. It’s important to understand the steps involved so you can appreciate the necessary delay from the time of the body was received by the funeral home, till the time the next of kin can view, touch and hold their loved one’s hand.

First the body must be bathed and the hair washed. From there, the director must set the person’s features. This means closing their eyes and mouth. If the body is to be embalmed this takes place, if not the organs are place inside the body and incisions are tightly sewn closed. Finally, the deceased is dressed and the hair is styled. What’s described above is a text book situation. Depending on “how” death happened (gunshot, accident, etc..) there are modifications that will be made.

In this story, death was unexpected and tragic. It was a young man with a family. The funeral home receive word from the medical examiner that the deceased would be coming into our care. Death happened on a Friday night. The widow (in shock and denial, rightfully so) called numerous times demanding to see her husband before the autopsy. When the police shared that there was going to be an autopsy, they didn’t explain the timeline. The timeline began with everything starting during normal working hours, which began on Monday. (If they did, she didn’t comprehend this.)

The point of the story is that people don’t know what they don’t know, especially around issues that revolve around death. The internet is a powerful tool, but the key is to know the difference between facts and well intended miss-information.

Autopsies are just one component of death and dying. A good funeral home and director can and will explain the process. They won’t go into this much detail, however in the name of being transparent – the process is what it is. Unless you’ve directly experienced it, there are many self-proclaimed experts.

For more information download my free e-book here What Expect when an Autopsy is required eBook


Nurse Should Know, a Little Empathy Goes a Long Way!

The below is a true story. The names have been changed but the story-line has not been altered. It’s my fear that this situation happens all too often. If that’s the case, my heart goes out to families who are treated like a number and a commodity. It only takes a minute to show kindness, empathy and respect.

food-dinner-steak-forkIt was a typical New Year’s Eve. Grace and Tom always stayed in and made a gourmet meal, shared a bottle of wine or two, watched Dick Clark’s Rock‘n New Year’s Eve on the television and somehow managed to stay awake long enough to watch the ball drop in Times Square welcoming the New Year – except this year. They were enjoying their meal which this year consisted of all organic vegetables, grilled filet mignon when Tom looked up at Grace with his eye bulging and his face turning red. Grace realized Tom was choking. She leaped from her chair knocking her plate on the floor as she managed to get behind Tom and place her hand around his sternum, attempting to do the Heimlich maneuver. Tom knew what was happening but was unable to verbally communicate. He knew Grace wasn’t strong enough to help, so he had instinctively picked up his cell phone, dialed 911 and handed it to Grace. The operator heard the confusion and Grace yelling as she frantically was trying to dislodge the object caught in his throat. Thirty minutes later, the attending emergency room doctor pronounced the time of death to be 8:36 p.m. on December 31, 2016. All this had transpired in less than ninety minutes.

Grace was trying to wrap her mind around the fact that less than an hour ago, they were enjoying a quiet meal and emergency-1137137_1280now her perfectly healthy, although overweight husband of thirty years was dead at the age of 56. There she stood alone in the emergency room looking at Tom with tubes down his throat, IV lines in his arms, shirt wide open, his skin colorless and eyes lifeless when a nurse approaches her and said that they would have to call the county medical examiner, who in turn would want to know what funeral home to call. Grace replied, “Medical Examiner? Why, I don’t want an autopsy! Funeral home, never thought about it. I can’t answer that right now.” The nurse then said “You may want to think about what organs will you allow us to donate?” “What do you mean organs to donate! We didn’t talk about this. Tom hasn’t even been dead ninety minutes and you expect me to give you an answer! ” Grace shouted. It was that moment Grace realized she had no car as she rode in the ambulance and no support.  The only children they had were their two cats who almost 20 years old, she needed to call a friend. She called Derek and Ann, their best friends.

Upon receiving the call, Derek and Ann immediately left their New Year’s Eve party and headed to the hospital. gift-of-lifeWhen they got there, the charge nurse lead them back to the emergency room where they met Grace and saw Tom.  Derek went over to pay respect to Tom, when the charge nurse briskly walked in told him to step aside as she started placing drops in his eyes and then taped them shut with surgical tape. Grace cried out, “ What are you doing?” . The nurse replied, “Getting him ready for Gift of Life – most people at minimum donate their eyes.” Derek looked at Grace and asked if she approved this. Grace did not. In fact, she didn’t want to donate anything. She felt it was expected by the hospital and that she was being pushed into something she was not comfortable with. Derick asked Grace if she signed any donation authorizations, she answered no. He took her by the hand and they walked up to the nurse’s station and explained to the head nurse that organ donation would not be an option, nor would there be any more discussion about this. The nurse then requested that Grace sign a form stating that “Gift of Life” was explained to her and she declined. Grace signed it, but mumbled something to the effect that “Gift of Life” was not explained and that she felt bullied. Derek put his arm around her and walked her back to Tom’s room.

Derek nor his wife Ann were not new to death care. Derek’s a supervisor for the township cemetery and had also worked for many years on the county’s transport team. He knew the crew well. Ann had worked at a funeral home for the past three years and kept close ties with her past employer. They could clearly see that Grace was being treated benignly. There was no empathy nor explanation, just an attitude of checking things off a list. While this may have been a routine death for the emergency room staff, it was Grace’s first. This was not an expected death, it was a very unexpected and tragic death. Being made to feel like just a number and having Tom’s body being treated like a commodity with vultures circling up above take his body parts was unconscionable. Grace had so many questions and no one from the hospital staff was taking the time to answer them.

The three primary questions that were not addressed were:

  1. Why did the medical examiner have to be called?
  2. Why would we need an autopsy, if he died choking on a piece of steak?
  3. Why do I have to donate Tom’s organs?

Derek and Ann knew the answers, only because they are familiar with end of life protocols due to their professions. Together they explained to Grace the following:

  1. Unless a person is under hospice care or has a terminal disease that’s on record, its standard operating procedure – even if death occurs in a hospital, to call the medical examiner. The medical examiner’s (ME) role is to ensure there was no foul play and to sign the death certificate. If the ME suspects, there is something beyond the obvious they will request an autopsy. Things aren’t always what they appear. The cause of death may be a heart attack that triggered Tom choking. Sometimes there is foul play is involved. Regardless of the “why” Michigan’s law states the ME must review the situation.
  2. Once the ME has conducted an investigation, a decision will be made regarding an autopsy. If the ME decides to conduct an autopsy, the deceased is taken to a local hospital for it to be performed by a pathologist. Once it’s completed the deceased will be transported to the funeral home the family selected. If the ME makes the decision not to conduct an autopsy, the county’s care team will transport the deceased from place of death to the family’s funeral home of choice.
  3. Organ donation is something the medical community supports. By no means is it a requirement. From a medical viewpoint, if organs or body parts are going to be harvested, the sooner the decision is made after death and the faster this process is conducted the better chance of success. Long story short, time becomes a critical factor.

emotion-556794_1920After listening to the explanations, Grace blurted out, “ I don’t want an autopsy performed! It doesn’t matter how he died, he’s dead. Nothing will bring him back.” The thought of him being dismembered and studied like a science project physically was making her shake.  Derek looked her in the eye and told her that by law she didn’t get to make that decision. He went on to further share that medical examiners don’t always require an autopsy to determine the cause of death. Bottom line, she needed to understand the role of the ME and respect the decision.  While she didn’t like what was happening, at least it was beginning to make sense. She couldn’t understand why the head nurse didn’t take the time to explain this to her, she would have been less angry and anxious. If the truth be told, she would have felt like the hospital cared that her husband died, versus feeling like she was just another case file.

Fifteen minutes later the head nurse came back into the room and said, “The county removal team is here, you’re going to want to leave the room. You don’t need to see this.” Just then, the county’s care team walked in the room. They had heard what the nurse said and acknowledged Derek.  The lead care team member Brent introduced everyone to Grace. He immediately stated that she did not have to leave. In fact, they would prefer if she stayed. Brent began his conversation by asking if Tom was a Veteran. Grace shared that he was not. She asked why.  Brent explained that if he was, they would honor him by placing a flag over his body as they wheeled him from the emergency room to their vehicle. Grace let them know that although he wasn’t a veteran, he loved the military and was active in politics. She asked if he could still have a flag draped over him. “Absolutely,” Brent responded. He then  further explained what the transport team was going to do, how they were going to do it and asked if she would like to participate. Grace responded no, but Derek jumped in and said he wanted too.  At that moment, the head nurse became visually upset and stormed out the room. Everyone looked at each other with dismay. Brent turned to Grace and said, “Please don’t let her lack of empathy ruin this moment. Together we are going to honor your husband the best we can. We will treat him with the dignity and respect he deserves. There is nothing to be afraid of. Would you like to walk with us down the hall and to the van to see him off?” Grace replied yes. Together Derek and Brent placed Tom on the gurney, draped a flag over his body and walked down the hallway to the transport van. Grace kissed the top of his head as watched as his body was loaded into the vehicle.

So what’s the lesson?  The fact that Tom died couldn’t be changed. What could have been avoided was the lack of empathy-9550064_lempathy from the head nurse. Grace had no idea what the head nurse had been dealing with prior to Tom’s arrival. Frankly, nor should she care. The head nurse is paid to handle stressful situations. It doesn’t matter if Tom was the first or tenth death that day, it was the first for Grace. If the head nurse had taken the time to set the expectation of what must happen over the next few minutes and why, Grace would have felt a little more in control and much anxiety would have been eliminated. A little bit of empathy would have gone a long way. When death happens in an emergency room, the first thing that should be addressed is educating the survivors of the next steps and decisions that must need to be made – including the why. Organ donation can be a part of the discussion but should never be the focal point. One should not assume nor openly have the family feel like their loved one is a commodity with vultures circling up above for their next meal.

Regardless if you are a business or a person, you only get one chance to make a good first impression. In this case, the first impression is an experience. Regardless of the message, it can be delivered with professionalism and respect. As a person experiencing this, it’s important that you keep in mind, you have rights. If you are not comfortable with what’s happening, ask. It’s imperative that you or a family member are your own advocate.