August 22, 2003

The Advocate: After a quarter of a century helping keep patients happy, Jean Gauld-Jaeger is going home to her art

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Jean Gauld-Jaeger relaxes in her art studio at home. Things are often not as relaxing as director of Patient Affairs. Dana Johnson

The Advocate: After a quarter of a century helping keep patients happy, Jean Gauld-Jaeger is going home to her art

Gauld-Jaeger visits patient Scott Hollimon after surgery. The Office of Patient Affairs handles about 150 each month. Dana Johnson

Gauld-Jaeger visits patient Scott Hollimon after surgery. The Office of Patient Affairs handles about 150 each month. Dana Johnson

Everybody who knows Jean Gauld-Jaeger, director of Patient Affairs, has at least one really good story about how she handled some impossible situation.

Like the one Jean cognoscenti call “Touched by an Angel”: One day Jean got a call saying a woman who was on a mission from God was in the hospital lobby. (This is the kind of call Jean gets, because, well, who else would you call with something like this?) Sure enough, when Jean got to the lobby, the putative agent of the Almighty explained that she had seen in a vision that she was to visit all the patients in the intensive care units and touch them in order to heal them.

The woman, perhaps accustomed to residing in a more spiritual realm, didn’t have the look or smell of a regular bather, and was apparently moving from hospital to hospital in her quest. She was insistent that she had to go into the hospital to visit patients.

This had the potential to get ugly, with the momentum of an agent of divine will coming in contact with the immovable object of hospital regulations.

Until Jean had an idea.

“I talked to her and explained that she couldn’t go into our intensive care units or patient rooms. But I told her she could touch me and transfer her healing power to me, that those were areas I could enter.”

This proved satisfactory, but, perhaps inspired by some of the more flamboyant television faith healers, the woman made sure that her healing powers transferred to Jean by smacking her forehead a few times.

So, after having been touched — or thumped — by an angel — or something — Jean went back to work, and the traveling healer moved on as well, satisfied with a job well done.

Gauld-Jaeger, who retires this month after 25 years as director of Patient Affairs at VUMC, has touched thousands of lives and helped hundreds of patients and their families in her time here — even if her powers aren’t explicitly divine and are more along the lines of infinite patience, good will, and an encyclopedic knowledge of who can get what done around here.

“Jean has been an incredible advocate for patients during her tenure here,” said Marilyn Dubree, director of patient care services and chief nursing officer of VUH. “She has also been an advocate for nurses and nursing practice.”

“Jean is the consummate professional,” says Dr. John S. Sergent, professor of Medicine who, in his previous role as head of the Vanderbilt Medical Group had frequent interaction with her. “She goes about her work carefully, gathers all the facts, and treats each encounter with total confidentiality.”

 Even through the closed door of her office, between the hospital lobby and the main bank of elevators, the hum of the thousands of daily comings and goings — voices, footsteps, the bell of arriving elevators — never stops, and neither does the flow of stories from patients and their families.

“Parking was our biggest complaint for many years until we made it free. Now it’s dropped off the radar,” she says. “For a while, semi-private rooms were a source of complaint. Then the complaints went away ‘cause the rooms went away. Now they’re back and so are the complaints.

“The acuity [of patients] is greater. I think the anxiety of the people is just as great if not greater. But communication is still the number one problem.”

Sometimes patients or family members are too sick, scared, or stressed to comprehend what is being said by doctors or nurses. Sometimes those speaking to a patient or a family member don’t make things as clear as they should. Either one can lead to misunderstandings that can cause even bigger problems if they aren’t cleared up. Clearing things up is where Gauld-Jaeger comes in.

“It’s amazing to think of the thousands and thousands of stories she has heard, both tragic and humorous,” says Dr. Gerald B. Hickson, associate dean for Clinical Affairs and director of the Vanderbilt University Center for Patient and Professional Advocacy. Hickson has worked with Gauld-Jaeger on research projects involving issues such as patient satisfaction and litigation.

“Jean’s care and her commitment to listening to patients has been instrumental in a lot of our research success,” Hickson says. “We are going to miss her.”

Sergent also makes the point that by solving problems, Gauld-Jaeger creates a better experience for patients, which helps Vanderbilt many ways, among them financially.

“She has been an enormous asset to the Medical Center, and by her patience and care has undoubtedly saved us many times her salary,” Sergent notes. “She has set a standard for her job that will be difficult if not impossible to match.”

Gauld-Jaeger has been president of the National Society for Healthcare Advocacy and has twice been president of the local chapter of that organization. She has served on boards and as an officer in a lot of professional organizations, but if you ask her what honors mean the most, she lists two: the Vanderbilt Friend of Nursing Award that she received in 1989, and the “hero” award from her granddaughter Katie, in which the little girl wrote about why her grandmother is her hero. “Both of these are special to me,” she says.

One more award that is special to Gauld-Jaeger is the new award from the Tennessee Chapter of Health Care and Patient Advocacy that was established in her honor, the Jean Gauld-Jaeger Award for Advocacy. She was also the award’s first recipient.

All the fun

“I remember interviewing with [then VUH director Dr. Fred Lucas] before I got the job,” Gauld-Jaeger says. “He sat and looked down at his shoes and just started laughing. I asked him why and he said, ‘I’m just thinking of all the fun you’re going to have and I’m going to miss.’”

Gauld-Jaeger, who had a master’s degree in Social Work and a year’s experience as a patient advocate at the University of Alabama at Birmingham, was hired as director of the department, which consisted of her and a secretary. That year, the office fielded about 120 or so cases.

In the 25 years since, things have gotten busier; now Patient Affairs has about 150 cases per month, but the rewards that Gauld-Jaeger finds in her job have stayed the same.

“The most rewarding aspect is when I can make a difference for one person,” she says.

There have been lots of “one persons” over the years.

Gauld-Jaeger is still visited by a patient who came through Vanderbilt in 1979. She was here on a student visa from Iran. “She had bought some insurance at the airport that was a real scam,” Gauld-Jaeger says. “She thought she was buying insurance that would protect her here for medical care.” It turned out, after an expensive hospitalization, that the policy, though purchased in good faith, was worthless.

“So we worked it out where she didn’t have to pay anything, because she really had no resources at all. She had fled Iran and escaped just as Khomeini came to power.”

The former patient has made a new life for herself in Nashville, but she hasn’t forgotten that Gauld-Jaeger helped her when she was without a country, sick, and had been victimized by thieves.

“She still comes back because she thinks that it was just a miracle [that Vanderbilt wrote off her bill]. I’m pleased it worked out and there was something we could do for her.”

Knowing who to call is a big deal for Gauld-Jaeger.

If people who work at the Medical Center don’t always know who is responsible for what, what chance does a patient or the family member of a patient have to get a problem solved? The Medical Center is a big place, and at some time or another almost every department, division, and office has some impact on patient care. It’s the job of Patient Affairs to be on the patients’ side in taking concerns to whoever can best resolve them.

“The success of this kind of role is the relationships established with individuals. I’m talking about knowing who to go to to get a particular thing done,” she says. “Ideally the patient advocate should be able to cross all departmental lines, and also up and down the hierarchy in order to get directly to the person who needs to know about the complaint or problem.”

Take the case of the junior stockbroker.

In 1979 there were no phones in children’s rooms, but one day Gauld-Jaeger got a call from a 12-year-old patient who said it was very important that he have a phone in his room.

“He said he needed to call his broker. He had some stocks he wanted to sell and others he wanted to buy, and he couldn’t do it without a telephone.”

It happened that one of the physicians on staff had just gotten a very early, very clunky model of a cell phone. Gauld-Jaeger persuaded the doctor to let the wheeling and dealing take place on his cell phone. Stocks bought, stocks sold, another satisfied customer.

She sums up her philosophy: “If it’s good for the patient, it’s probably not going to be bad for the hospital.”

Sometimes, like with the phone, this takes the form of bending the rules. Sometimes this involves things that will never appear in a job description, such as the time a family with five children was in the hospital for days on end because the children’s grandfather was gravely ill. It was the middle of summer, Gauld-Jaeger knew both the parents and kids needed a break, so she ended up taking the kids to her house and letting the kids play in the lawn sprinkler in the backyard.

A son’s death

Taking care of children seems to have a special place in Gauld-Jaeger’s heart. There may be a good reason; her son Ricky was a member of the Coast Guard who was killed in 1980 in a shipwreck in Tampa Bay.

He was 19 at the time. The accident in which he died killed 26 people, and his body wasn’t recovered for two weeks.

“The Coast Guard told me I could come to Florida and fly back with the body, or some guardsmen would fly back with him,” she says.

“I decided I had to see where this had happened. I rented a car and drove out to the area where I thought I could see where it happened. There was a shack, a bait shack, there, and I went in.

“I told the man in the shack who I was and why I was there, and he radioed out to some of the people who work on boats in the bay. Some of them were in the search party that had worked that night.

“They told me what they had seen and heard, and later they took me to this restaurant that was a hangout for area shippers. They bought me dinner, introduced me to others who had been on the bay after the collision. It helped me so much to see everything and hear from them what it was like.”

Gauld-Jaeger says that knowing what such grief is like from the inside helps her in situations when she encounters people who are grieving or in pain.

“It gave me some insight that I never would have had into the lives of people who have to through those kinds of experiences,” she says. “You wonder how the human spirit manages to get over that and move forward. It’s miraculous, I think, that people are able to do that.”

Emotions sometimes run high in the hospital. It is a place, literally, of life and death, and people who are unexpectedly thrust into that environment can react in ways that are not always ideal.

Those who are most upset and the most violence-prone are, Gauld-Jaeger says from years of experience, “males who believe it is their responsibility to protect the patient.”

She does her best to get the family member to a quiet, private place to talk out whatever the problem is.

“If they have the other people in the waiting room as their audience, they have an image to uphold and they won’t back down as readily.”

She discovered she has a talent for getting more calm the more agitated somebody else is. “I slow down and lower my voice. I don’t know where I learned how to do it, but I learned it was effective.

“I’ve never been hit. I think that’s amazing,” she says, thinking of the number of fights, shouting matches, and threatening situations that she has been called on to defuse.

“At first I thought it was my glasses [that kept me safe.] I think it’s my gray hair and because I’m an old lady and they think twice about hitting an old lady.”

A great place to grow up

Gauld-Jaeger grew up in Poland, Ohio, a rough-and-tumble steel mill town in the northeast corner of the state, full of hard workers who played sandlot baseball in summer and football in the fall and lived and died — mostly died — with the Cleveland Indians.

“There were a lot of trees,” Gauld Jaeger says of her hometown. “Houses were three story on narrow lots with fenced-in yards. There were front porches and sidewalks. Every house had a garden. The mills are always in the valley, where the rivers are. When the men left the mill at the end of the day they had to walk up the hill — a steep hill — to get home.”

Her mother stayed at home and kept the house, and her father made his living from the mills, but in an indirect way. He was a mechanical and chemical engineer, and he invented a solvent that was used to descale industrial boilers.

“I had to learn this as a kid, because every year in school you were asked “What does your father do?’ and I had to memorize this: ‘My father does chemical and hydraulic descaling of industrial equipment.’”

If your future job was going to involve getting along with and helping a lot of different kinds of people, Poland, Ohio, in the ‘40s and ‘50s was a great place to grow up. “I had a brother, four years younger. My grandparents lived with us. Growing up with that intergenerational picture was very helpful.

“The neighborhood had a lot of Italians, Hungarians, Poles, Czechs, people from the Ukraine. A lot of people immigrated to that industrial area to work in the mills, and they lived around us. We had wonderful food, just wonderful food. Everybody made their own wine.

“It was a great place to grow up. It was fun.”

Love of art

Gauld-Jaeger grew up, got married, moved around some — Pittsburgh, Chicago, Birmingham — and had four children: Ricky, who was in the Coast Guard; Jimmy Gauld, who is married with two sons and lives in Jackson, Miss.; Debbie Lofton, who is married, has two girls, and lives in Birmingham; and Lisa Southall, who works at VUMC in Internal Medicine, and is married to Charlie Southall, who until recently worked in Medical Center Plant Operations. They have one daughter, meaning, for those of you not keeping score, that Gauld-Jaeger has five grandchildren.

She came to Nashville in 1978 after her first marriage ended in divorce in Birmingham; she had finished graduate school, and she had met the man who became her second and present husband, Chuck Jaeger, who retired after a career as an educator for Associated Building and Contractors, teaching classes in plumbing, carpentry, and heating and air conditioning. “He lived in Nashville — so I moved to Nashville,” she says simply.

To anybody who knows Gauld-Jaeger, the question of what she plans to do with her time after retirement doesn’t even need to be asked. If she has another love in her life besides her family, it is her art. Gauld-Jaeger is an accomplished painter and also a restorer of china and glass.

“I really had not planned on retiring at 65,” she says. “I planned to work until I was 70. But then, when I discovered I could paint, I realized I am not going to have time to do the kind of development of that skill that I want to unless I do it full time.”

She began sketching and decorative art years ago, but as demands of children and life took more time, she neglected any artistic pursuit. Then a gift from her son Jimmy brought her back.

“About five or six years ago my son gave me a set of paints and said ‘Mom, you need to start painting again.’”

The paints sat idle for more than a year before, as she tells it, largely from a sense of guilt over an unused gift, she got them out one day.

“I thought, what am I going to paint? So I got a picture of the grandchildren out, and I thought, I’ve never painted people before, I wonder if I can? So I did.

“And I looked at the kids and I thought, well darn, they look like who they are. I mean, I would have been glad if they had just looked like children, but they looked like those children.”

Since then, she has used vacation time to take classes from various painters, and she says time stops when she is engaged in working on a canvas.

“I’ll look at my watch and it’s 9:30 and I can’t believe I’ve been painting for three hours, and the class is over already. And I go home and it’s 10 o’clock and I’m not ready to go to sleep because I’m still so wired up from the painting. It’s a matter of being so focused and so absorbed in that that you forget everything else.”

She has some landscapes and other paintings on display at The Retreat, a day spa in Brentwood, and has done several portraits on commission.

She also restores damaged or broken china and glass — a pursuit that she says is more time-consuming than painting.

“Usually it’s something that was in the family that a child has knocked off a table and it’s just broken everybody’s heart ‘cause it was great grandma’s. So they want that put back together—an invisible restoration so that it doesn’t look like it’s ever been damaged.”

Human comedy, human tragedy

If you are talking to Jean Gauld-Jaeger, and you know she is about to retire after 25 years in Patient Affairs, you know you have to ask this question: what is the weirdest case she has come across in her time on the job?

And she will tell you about the man with dueling widows, one of whom sold the dead husband’s body to the other.

No kidding.

“A man and a woman were in a truck wreck,” she begins her tale. “She was not injured. He was severely injured and was here in SICU. The woman who was with him said she was his wife. And they had the same address and she had his last name. So he was here maybe two days and wasn’t doing well. Heading downhill.”

Then things got weird.

“Another woman shows up, and says she’s the wife. Now we have a dilemma. And this wife has three kids with her. And they’re from Oklahoma.”

Naturally, the ideal solution to this would be for the husband to get well enough to say which of these two women he is married to — but he doesn’t survive the injuries and dies.

“Now we do have a problem,” Jean says. “They both want his body. We didn’t know what to do.”

Some evidence would be nice — like, say, a marriage license.

“Well, the one who was in the truck with him didn’t have a marriage license, but she had his divorce papers from the other one. And the other one said they were remarried after this divorce, but she can’t find a marriage license.”

Since paging King Solomon was out of the question, Medical Center officials did the best they could.

With no concrete evidence that either of the claimant widows were married to the dead man, the body was awarded to the woman who was in the truck with him at the time of the accident, who also lived at the same address and had the same last name.

“Well, about two weeks later we get a call from the woman in Oklahoma, the divorced wife. She was really mad. And she wanted us to reimburse her the $500 that she gave to the one here for his body and pay for his transportation out to Oklahoma so she can bury him so his kids can go to the cemetery.”

In other words, one “widow” had, in effect, sold the body to the other.

“He must have been a real charmer,” Gauld-Jaeger says with a smile, and here’s the thing: she is able to tell this story, full as it is of both tragedy and rueful human comedy, and somehow convey that she has a sympathetic appreciation of both.

“I know I’m going to miss the interaction with the staff and Vanderbilt, and also with patients and their families,” she says. “I’m going to have to watch the soaps to get some excitement in my life.”