A life-threatening heart episode and an extended stay in the hospital can take a toll on a patient’s whole family. When Dennis Johns found himself at UNC Hospitals awaiting bypass surgery after a heart attack in early March, it was an understandably anxious and emotional time for his family.
His teenage stepdaughter Jaime poured her fears and her hopes into a letter to Dennis as a way to help her cope: “I would give up so much to go back to that night at the Father Daughter Dance. That is my best and happiest memory with you […] Daddy, before you have your surgery, please dance with me,” she wrote. She even requested a special song: “You’re my Hero,” by Teresa James.
At first, Jaime hadn’t planned to share the note with Dennis. A friend’s encouragement changed her mind.
When Dennis read the letter he knew dancing with his daughter was something he wanted to do. But first he had to convince the medical staff that he was well enough to dance.
“It took me a few days to show the nurses that I had enough stamina to stroll around the floor for a few minutes,” said Dennis.
With the medical staff convinced, Dennis, his wife Shanai, and the nursing staff set to work planning the surprise. Dennis let Benny Doyle, RN, his overnight charge nurse, read Jaime’s letter. At shift change, Doyle talked to Carina Salzmann, RN, who was Dennis’ charge nurse the day before his surgery, about the letter and the surprise the Johns were planning.
“They let me read Jaime’s letter that morning and I couldn’t help but feel the tears streaming down my face,” recalls Salzmann. “I told them we were happy to get things set up for the dance. We wanted to make this very special.”
Salzmann secured a conference room on the floor, gathered decorations with Paige Roberts, MBA, RN, assistant nurse manager for 3 Anderson, and decorated the room for the event with help of Danielle dePeyester, a 3 Anderson nursing assistant, and Natasha Thornton, the secretary on the floor. Salzmann was also able to secure a few carnations from UNC Environmental Services to make small bouquet, something for Dennis to give to Jaime before their dance.
When Jaime arrived at UNC Hospitals that evening, she was dressed in the same jeans she had worn to school that morning. Shanai had to figure out a way to get her into a dress for the dance Jaime still didn’t know was just around the corner.
“That was when mom got sneaky,” laughs Jaime. “She told me that my jeans had stains on them and that I couldn’t see him dressed like that because we had to protect him from germs. And then she threw me a dress. It didn’t even occur to me to ask why she had one of my dresses with her in the first place.”
When Jaime was brought into the conference room, Dennis was waiting for her. Salzmann recalls the moment:
“Jaime was very surprised and started crying. Dennis couldn’t help it either and started tearing up and smiling at the same time. He handed her the flowers and then they started dancing. It was a very emotional and beautiful moment.”
As important as the dance was for Jaime, it was meaningful for Dennis also. “In the days leading up to the surgery, it gave me something to look forward to.”
Jaime’s mother Shanai said it’s the closest she’s seen them in years. “It was a real bonding moment for them.”
Now nearly two months past his surgery, Dennis is recovering at his home in Roxboro and his doctors tell him he is mending well.
Shortly after Dennis’ discharge, Shanai sent a thank you note to the nurses on 3 Anderson that read, in part: “Thank you so much for all your caring. You are wonderful!! …Thank you for caring not just for my husband Dennis, but for me as well, and for our kids.”
Susan Helms, MSN, RN, the nurse manager on 3 Anderson, says that moments like Johns’ dance provide UNC nurses with the opportunity to go beyond the traditional scope of medical care and make human connections with their patients.
“Experiences like these fulfil that basic need of providing meaningful work in a way that touches lives and it helps our staff ensure that the essence of Carolina Care is part of our daily interactions with the people in our care and their families,” says Helms.
For Salzmann, the day of the dance was “exhausting” but worth it. “It was the team effort of the staff that made this event possible. The little things we were able to do made a difference for this family, and turned a grueling shift into a very gratifying day.”