Family House Diaries: Lessons in Caring and Compassion

A 54-year-old mother from Lumberton, N.C. nearly loses her adult daughter in a horrific accident and as a caregiver offers help and healing to her daughter and to complete strangers.

Family House Diaries: Lessons in Caring and Compassion click to enlarge Virginia Hays

Media contact: Tom Hughes, (919) 966-6047,

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Written by Elizabeth Swaringen for UNC Health Care

CHAPEL HILL, N.C. – Take care of yourself.  Find someone you can talk to.  Don’t be afraid to cry.   

These are the lessons Virginia Hays – birth mother of three, foster mother of many more and Mama V to the friends of all her children – freely shares after nearly losing her 32-year-old daughter Vaylene Klassen in a motorcycle accident that claimed the life of Vaylene’s boyfriend on June 11.  

“What happened to Vaylene could happen to anyone, so don’t think for a minute you are immune,” said Hays, 54, of Lumberton in Robeson County. “It was bad, but it could have been worse. As they say, ‘there but for the grace of God ‘.”

Vaylene was air-lifted to UNC Hospitals in the wee hours of June 12 where her crushed, broken and torn body was treated by five teams of specialists. On June 24 she was released to Chapel Hill Rehabilitation Center for intensive physical therapy and is scheduled to return home to Lumberton on Aug. 17 to continue out-patient therapy there, well in advance of her birthday on Aug. 29.

To have home-away-from-home comforts while being near Vaylene in Chapel Hill, Virginia had access to SECU Family House, the 40-bedroom hospital hospitality house minutes from UNC Hospitals. Family House provides comfortable, convenient and affordable housing for seriously ill adult patients and their family member caregivers.

“Family House was an absolute godsend, an enormous blessing,” said Virginia. “They made it possible for me to be here for her and not go crazy. Being away from her when she was in such pain – physically and emotionally – is not something I could do. Had Family House not been available to me, I would have slept in the woods to be near her.”

Early on, Virginia slept in “a rather uncomfortable reclining chair” next to her daughter’s bed. “I would come to Family House to shower and wash clothes,” Virginia said. “When she moved to rehab, I started sleeping at Family House and cooking for her.”

But more than the physical comfort of place, Virginia found comfort and support from fellow residents and Family House staff.   

“We were all going through the same thing – pain of a loved one being sick or injured and feeling helpless of how to fix it,” Virginia said. “We talked to one another and listened to one another. We cried together. My heart just broke for a number of mothers I met. I couldn’t always remember their names, but I could remember their situations. I saw their exhaustion and frustration at days’ end day after day, and I just wanted to take them away for a chance to relax and regroup. But we were all the same -- none of us wanted to be away from our sick children. ”

The care and compassion Virginia received at Family House was also evident at UNC Hospitals.

“With all my children – by birth and by choice – I’ve been in a few hospitals, but until UNC Hospitals I have never seen the number of people who are not only as skilled as they are but as compassionate and thoughtful,” Virginia said. “The nurses asked about me as a caregiver, how I was doing, how was I taking care of myself, and reminding me that I couldn’t take care of Vaylene unless I took care of myself first.”

“And the student nurses were phenomenal as well,” Virginia said. “They were so tuned in to Vaylene’s responses, they could correctly interpret her facial expressions without a word being said.”

Virginia expected Vaylene, a branch bank employee, to make phenomenal progress in her recovery, and she has.  

“She’s always been my overachiever, the one who got a black belt in taekwondo before she got her driver’s license,” Virginia said. “She’s always learning, never stagnant, always moving ahead.”

Still, Virginia can’t shake the fear about what might have been for her daughter and their relationship that had already transcended to BFF – best friends forever – before the accident.

“I’m not as strong as I thought I was,” Virginia said.

“What?  I don’t believe that,” Vaylene shot-back.

“I have not handled this as well as I would have liked to,” Virginia said, insistent.

“I disagree,” Vaylene persisted. “How much better could you have been?”

“What no one sees is the fear I have inside, the fear that I could have lost you,” Virginia said, tears welling.  

“Well, we’re well past the could have,” Vaylene insisted.

“Just because you are getting better doesn’t mean I’ve gotten rid of the fear,” Virginia said.  “But it’s a reasonable fear, a fear every mother has regardless of a child’s age. And I’m not sure it ever goes away.”

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