December 11, 2009

Trauma’s impact on families explored

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Members of the Vanderbilt Trauma Survivors Network discuss the impact of traumatic brain injury at a recent peer panel discussion. (Photo by Mary Donaldson

Trauma’s impact on families explored

No one is ever truly prepared for a traumatic injury. Certainly not the patient or the patient's family members, who are often left to navigate a maze of medical terms, visiting hours and staff rounds, while at the same time preparing for the next steps, when their loved one is discharged.

To help trauma unit staff understand the difficulty of being a family caregiver, the Vanderbilt Trauma Survivors Network recently organized a peer panel of family members affected by traumatic brain injury.

“These families have allowed us back into their lives to hear their stories, sharing their fears, challenges and successes that changed their life path forever,” said Susan Sutton, M.P.H., program manager of the Trauma Survivors Network.

“We want our staff to get to know these family members and understand what life was like for them while they were in the trauma unit and what life has been like for them after they left. We want to know, 'what did we do that was helpful? What challenges did they face? Were they prepared to leave the trauma unit? What more could we have done for them?'”

Participants in the peer panel were Pam Bryan, whose son, John, was in a car accident in 1995 at age 13; Shawn Coltharp, whose daughter, Hillary, was in a car accident in 2007 at age 26; and Denise Garland, whose husband, Bob, crashed his bicycle in 2006 at age 64.

They responded to 10 questions compiled by trauma unit staff, and audience members were able to speak to them personally following the panel discussion.

“The most helpful thing was learning what all the tubes, monitors and numbers meant,” Bryan said. “It was frightening, especially for me as a mother, but once I learned what everything was, I wasn't as frightened by it.”

This comment was especially meaningful for Elli Botwinick, R.N.

“I thought it was great to have the family's perspective on how important education is. I know that education is huge, and each time we talk to someone, we educate them,” she said.

Coltharp said one of the biggest difficulties was getting enough rest on the uncomfortable chairs, but the most helpful thing was good communication from staff.

“I appreciated everyone's ability to communicate on the highest level of authority and then drill it down into layman's terms so we could understand it. Often, we couldn't absorb as much as we would like because we were under so much stress,” she said.

Garland said the simple act of nurses giving out their cell phone numbers made all the difference for her.

“The night they put Bob in the leather restraints, the nurse told me to go home because it is what it is, and I was in tears. I was driving home and my cell phone rang and she said 'I just want you to know that he's resting.' That meant so much. I would call in the morning and see how he was doing. If it was good, I got to take a shower and have breakfast and do my thing before coming into the hospital,” she said.

The panel also emphasized preparing families to leave the trauma unit. After Bryan's son, John, spent eight months in rehabilitation, a big homecoming celebration was planned.

“We drove up and there were banners and all our family and friends cheering. Then it hit us: there were eight steps up to the house and John was in a wheelchair,” she said.

“There needs to be a lot of support and education before going home to make sure families are truly ready.”

Katie Maners, R.N., said this panel will change her daily practice.
“I am glad I came to this because this will help me be a better nurse. I didn't realize we had such an impact,” she said.

The Vanderbilt Trauma Survivors Network helps patients and families cope with traumatic injuries during their hospital stay and after. Members of the panel are TSN Peer Visitors, who volunteer to meet with trauma patients and families.

They discuss what to expect with the injury and resources for more information and offer support from someone who has experienced the same trauma.

Sutton is planning the next TSN Peer Panel to focus on amputees.

For more information about TSN, go to