Holding hands one more time: Compassion and collaboration allow couple to spend the most precious time together
Virginia and Tommy Stevens, both 91, have been married 69 years and this was the time they needed each other the most. Compassionate problem-solving by the Palliative Care Unit and the Trauma Intensive Care Unit teams brought the loving couple together one more time.September 1, 2023
Lifelong partners Virginia and Tommy Stevens were recently reunited in the Palliative Care Unit at Vanderbilt University Medical Center after unrelated health emergencies resulted in the couple being cared for in different units at the Medical Center. Photo submitted by the family.
From the moment 91-year-old Virginia Stevens was wheeled into the room of her husband Tommy on the Palliative Care Unit at Vanderbilt University Medical Center (VUMC), she’s kept her hand in his.
Through 69 years of marriage, the Stevens have navigated life side by side, founding several successful transportation-related businesses together, raising two children and then joyfully welcoming grandchildren and one great-grandchild. The couple has been their family’s constant axis.
Recent unrelated medical emergencies caused the pair to be transported to VUMC, separating the life partners at a time when they needed each other the most. Compassionate problem-solving by the Palliative Care Unit and the Trauma Intensive Care Unit teams allowed the couple to be reunited and their family to be with them in one room.
When the pair first spotted each other, “They both lit up,” said their daughter Karen Kreager.
“He was awake when she came in,” she said. “His eyes were open. He wasn’t communicating a lot — just in small whispers. But he knew that she was there and that she was going to be right beside him. They haven’t stopped holding hands the whole time. She won’t let go of him.”
Tommy, whose full name is Doyle Thomas Stevens Jr., is also 91 and has Alzheimer’s disease. He had recently been transferred into a memory care unit at the assisted living facility where the couple lived, and they were still able to spend time together. Then, when he began having labored breathing and dangerously low blood pressure, he was transported to VUMC. His diagnosis was aspiration pneumonia and sepsis. When illness overwhelmed his body to the point treatment was no longer effective, he was moved to the Medical Center’s Palliative Care Unit.
The same morning Tommy was taken to VUMC, Virginia fell. She adamantly insisted that she was just fine, but when her son Greg Stevens laid eyes on her, he knew all was not well. She was bundled into an ambulance headed to the Medical Center.
“Really, we think that you just needed to check on Dad, and that was your ride,” teased Kreager.
Six broken ribs, a spinal fracture and a hip injury earned Virginia admission to VUMC’s Trauma ICU.
“You know, she’s really pretty superhuman,” Kreager said. “The doctors have all said that you look at her chart, and then come in and look at her and you’re like, ‘Really? Is this the same person?’”
The Palliative Care Unit staff soon realized the family was running an anxiety-riddled and exhausting tag team event, taking shifts between first the Medical ICU and then the Palliative Care Unit for Tommy, and the Trauma ICU for Virginia. They began working to reunite the couple and their family in one space.
“We were able to focus on both of them at the same time versus having to worry about going back and forth. And the most important thing for us was that they were together.”
Virginia was moved into a room adjacent to Tommy’s in the Palliative Care Unit, and her hospital bed was scooted against his in his room so she could comfort him as his health continued to deteriorate.
“You know, it helped me a lot,” Virginia said. “It just gave me peace that I wouldn’t have to worry about him. He was going to be with me.”
“It reminds me of why we do this work,” said Mohana Karlekar, MD, medical director of VUMC’s adult Palliative Care Program. “We take care of people — husbands, wives, mothers, fathers — not patients. We brought this family together during one of their most difficult times with little effort on our part. It involved a call, seeing an extra patient that day and some conversations.
“I watched Mrs. Stevens tease her grandson, and her grandson and granddaughter in turn tease her back, feed her yogurt and drinks, and just rejoice in each other’s company. It did not take a whole lot of work on our part. It is a reminder to me about how each of us should remember that taking just a little time can be so impactful and that we should do this more often.”
Having both of the 91-year-olds together in one space has given the family a moment to exhale. On their first day back together, they shared stories and laughter, Kreager said. They talked about incredible vacations together at the beach over the years. They reminisced about holiday feasts where friends were treated just like family, and Virginia, a second-generation American, laid out traditional Lebanese delicacies on the table alongside the turkey.
“We were able to focus on both of them at the same time versus having to worry about going back and forth,” Kreager said “And the most important thing for us was that they were together.”
“From the time we brought Mrs. Stevens over, she held her husband’s hand and fussed in a very loving way with him,” Karlekar said. “She was able to tell me Monday that she was at peace with what was going on, and she wanted to be there until the end.”
[Update: In the days after this story was written, Tommy died on Sept. 8, followed by Virginia on Sept. 17. Both were surrounded by family. Virginia’s obituary summed up: “What a love story. In life, in death, in life eternal. Together.” Tommy’s obituary is here. Virginia’s obituary is here.]