Recently at Vidant Medical Center’s Heart Institute building, an event was held that focused on the loss of a loved one and how people handle it.
The event was called ‘Giving Voice’, and featured five guest speakers, open questioning, and a panel of nine people at the end who talked about the lessons that death has taught them.
The free event took place in a lecture-styled classroom, and many medical students from ECU attended as well.
Pastor Jason Villegas and Chaplin Vanessa Polk were the first to speak. They discussed what a combination of faith and health means. Both told their personal experiences with death, faith, families, and loved ones they’ve worked with during difficult times.
Polk said that it’s their job in times of loss to be comforting. She said many times people of faith only have a short but critical period of time with the individuals and their families.
Polk also spoke of how it’s important to be present, but that constant conversation isn’t always needed in times of grief and loss.
The second set of speakers was ECU College of Nursing professor Dell Hagwood and nursing student Olivia Li. In 2008 Li lost her mother to breast cancer. She was only 13 at the time.
Professor Hagwood asked Li questions, and she bravely told her story to an audience of nursing school peers. Li discussed her anger after her mother’s death and told a story of a nurse who laughed at Li and her mother during her mother’s final days.
“We should never say to someone “I know how you feel” because you don’t.”– Professor Hagwood, ECU College of Nursing Professor
Olivia said that it was a Sunday evening and she was begging her mother to let her stay overnight with her in the hospital. Her mother declined because Li’s first day of school was the next day. Saddened by this, Li began to cry and have an exchange with her mother about it.
At that time, Li says a nurse came in and saw the situation. She then proceeded to laugh out loud. This encounter has haunted Li throughout her life, as she never knew how a nurse could laugh at such a sad and personal moment between mother and daughter. Li’s mother would die just a few days later.
Now finishing nursing school in December, Olivia has dedicated her future nursing career to making sure patients don’t share the same experience she and her mother did.
Li expressed the need for non-judgmental listening in the medical field, and to avoid showing disrespect and ignorance towards grieving families and individuals.
The final speaker was Elizabeth Wooten, whose husband Robin passed away from Lou Gehrig’s Disease (ALS) in 2017. This disease slowly weakens the body’s muscles and functions until ultimately taking a person’s life. Currently, there is no cure.
While on stage, Wooten told the story of her husband’s diagnosis. He was told he maybe had fourteen months but passed away in 11. Although they were given multiple treatment options that might buy Robin time, the couple decided they’d spend his last months enjoying life and living it to the fullest.
Elizabeth expressed the love and admiration she has for her husband, who never let the disease take a hold of his happiness.
In Robin’s last months, the family did all of the things that he enjoyed. They went fly fishing, visited the Outer Banks, had Duck Donuts, saw New York City’s Rockefeller Christmas tree, and even visited the New York Stock Exchange floor (Robin was previously a stockbroker).
“He chose joy every moment he was alive,” said Elizabeth. When friends and family would visit, they’d remark on how lively he was. His faith kept him strong too, as Robin continued to pray and study the bible.
When people would talk to him about passing away his response was, “just look up,” in reference to heaven. He had accepted what was to come, and took joy in the moments that he had left.
After all of the speakers told their stories, a question and answer portion were given to the audience. They had this time to ask all five speakers and four Vidant workers questions about the event.
I spoke with Elizabeth Wooten following the event and asked her what it was like to tell her husband’s story. She responded calmly,
“I always love telling our story because my husband became my biggest hero. ALS is such an unknown disease. It’s gaining more traction, but I love to share the story of ALS, the story of joy and hope. It’s a devastating disease but there’s always hope in the gospel. There’s always hope in finding joy as a choice in illness, and I think it’s important that these young medical career minded students see the humanistic side that there are families behind these illnesses, and how generationally it affects grief. Not just in the moment of the death, but how years down it affects and it’s a steppingstone.”