Miracle Work on 38th Street: Connecting a Family at Life’s End

In my work at Seton Healthcare Family, I had the privilege of interviewing this family about their experience in one of our hospitals. All they wanted was time for the father to say goodbye. They got a great deal more.  

“We expected to visit the hospital, get him stabilized and then take him back home. Suddenly, everything changed.”


Eduardo’s sister, Cecilia, holds a photo of him at school.

On a humid Sunday morning, a young man with Down syndrome entered the emergency room at Seton Medical Center Austin (SMCA), part of the Seton Healthcare Family, Austin, Texas. Accompanied by his mother and sister, he struggled to breathe. Thirty-two-year-old Eduardo Martinez had recently been diagnosed with kidney disease and was told he had six months to a year left. Within the hour, the prognosis changed dramatically. Eduardo was given less than two days to live.

“We were floored when the doctor told us the news,” said Cecilia Martinez, Eduardo’s sister. “We expected to visit the hospital, get him stabilized and then take him back home. Suddenly, everything changed. I started calling family to come to the hospital.”

Though Eduardo’s mother is local, his father lives in Mexico and had not seen Eduardo in 16 years. The family asked Seton to help the father cross the border and say goodbye.

Enter Dr. Truly Hall and Eileen West. Dr. Hall is the director of the Seton Adult Inpatient Medical Services (SAIMS) program at SMCA, which is on 38th Street in Austin. She is board certified in internal medicine, with seven years at Seton under her belt. Eileen West is a medical social worker at SMCA, spending every other Monday through Friday in the 4-North unit. On the weekends her role expands to “the whole house,” meaning she covers all cases that are not in the Emergency Department or labor and delivery.

Around 2 p.m. that Sunday, West received a call from Dr. Hall about a family standing vigil in the ICU for their terminally ill son. The request for border crossing assistance was not a surprise. “Maybe once a year we have a case like this, and I’ve written to the Mexican Embassy for an emergency visa,” said Dr. Hall. “But never on a Sunday.”

Given the political upheaval at the Texas/Mexico border, West was concerned. “I said I’d get right on it, but then realized the Mexican Embassy was closed,” she said. West spoke with Cecelia and decided to contact the U.S. Customs and Border Protection, since the family knew which one of the 26 crossing stations the father was going to enter.

How did she know where to start? “I just Googled it,” she said nonchalantly. “I got a phone number, then was transferred and passed around a bit, but I ended up on the phone with a humanitarian care unit.”

To cross the border on such short notice, Eduardo’s father required detailed paperwork. Dr. Hall and West compiled six pages of materials outlining the situation. West provided Border Patrol agents with her personal cell phone, work phone and home phone. Then she hit a snag.

“The Border Patrol told me that I needed to give the paperwork to the family, and that the family should deliver the documents to the father at the border,” said West. “But I told them,  ‘No. This young man is dying and the family is not leaving his side.’” Several faxes later, the paperwork was approved.

The U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services allows foreign residents to apply for humanitarian parole for emergency situations. Handled on a case-by-case basis, approval generally takes between 60 and 120 days. With West’s tenacious prodding, it took mere hours. West attributes her success to “A bit of luck – and someone must have taken pity on us!”

Meanwhile, Eduardo continued receiving comfort care. “Every single doctor, nurse, all the people we met – they are great people,” recalled Cecelia. “We moved Eduardo to the third floor, and the nurses brought us pillows, blankets and a folding bed. Someone from the ICU made sure that we got a bigger room so we could all be near Eduardo. Even though it was a tough situation, the doctors and nurses never treated us or Eduardo dismissively. They knew it was hard.”

A fitful night passed as the family waited. At 9 a.m. the next day, Eduardo’s face split into a grin when his father walked into the room. As Cecilia described it, “I kept saying, ‘Wow.’ We didn’t expect him to cross the border at all, especially on a Sunday. I am so impressed by Eileen. She was an angel for us.”

Cecilia isn’t the only one impressed by West’s actions. “A lot of social workers — especially on a Sunday — they wouldn’t even have tried to help the family, and no one would have batted an eye, considering she was also covering the whole house,” said Dr. Hall. “The chaotic border situation didn’t deter her; Eileen took care of everything. I don’t know how she did it!”

Garry Olney, vice president and chief operating officer at SMCA concurred, adding, “This is amazing! It is what Humancare is all about. Eileen did a great job.”

Lifted spirits were short-lived, however. Over the next few days, Eduardo’s condition deteriorated. In his final hours a nurse noticed the family focused on the plummeting numbers and screeching beeps of the monitors surrounding him. She disconnected the monitors and encouraged the family to focus on Eduardo, adding, “He is more important than any numbers.”

Thanks to West’s thorough initial work, Eduardo’s father was able to stay in town long enough to attend the burial. When asked why she went to such great lengths for this family, Eileen’s answer was simple: “The most important thing I could do for the family was to get the father here.”

She downplayed the significance of her actions, adding, “Every social worker does this; it’s not out of the ordinary in our department. In fact, this is what many social workers accomplish before their first cup of coffee or morning rounds!” Caffeinated or not, West exemplifies Humancare, going above and beyond her required duties to impact lives.

Cecilia has a message for the staff at SMCA: “We are very thankful for Seton. From the ER to the final day in the hospital, everybody treated us like family. A lot of people discriminate against people with disabilities, but Seton showed great love and care for my brother. There are several hospitals we could have gone to and we ended up at the right one. We received so much support. I don’t have the words to describe the experience. Please tell all the Seton staff thank you.”

About Humancare

Humancare challenges the status quo of healthcare. By adding humanity back into a system that seems to have lost its human touch, we’re moving closer to being able to provide person-centered care. This recommitment to the people we serve modernizes our mission to care for and improve the health everyone in Central Texas, and beyond. Humancare is how we bring our mission to life, everyday. On this page you’ll find resources to help you understand, experience and share Humancare. setonhumancare.org

2 thoughts on “Miracle Work on 38th Street: Connecting a Family at Life’s End

  1. Hi! I’ve been following your web site for some time now and
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