Eileen's story


Many patients come to Gaylord with complex medical conditions. Eileen required extensive breathing support due to a serious illness that caused her lungs to fail. She had a special request that we were able to meet. 

Our donors make it possible to give care beyond the ordinary and make stories like this possible for patients like Eileen. We are grateful for their ongoing support. Click to download the pdf. See Eileen's video below. 

Photo of patient with a horse

Boy Toy and Caesar, two Morgan horses, sniffed the autumn air as they stepped cautiously from the horse trailer parked in front of Gaylord’s Brooker building. Karen Hunter Bobbi, the horses’ trainer, gently stroked their heads as she instructed them to be on their best behavior. Taking their bridles, she led them slowly up the sidewalk toward the large wooden doors of Brooker.

Meanwhile, a carefully synchronized team was working inside the hospital readying one of its sickest patients, Eileen, for a much-anticipated reunion. Housekeeping busily cleared the hallways while respiratory therapists and nurses coordinated care so Eileen could travel from her room in Milne 2 to Brooker’s lobby. But in the last 24 hours Eileen’s health had worsened; she was very weak and listless.

Eileen Hunter was only 63 years old when she was diagnosed last May with chronic myelomonocytic leukemia (CMML), a rare blood cancer. She was told that a stem cell transplant was the only treatment that might save her life. But then a drug reaction damaged her lungs, thwarting the transplant and forcing her in and out of hospitals for the next four months. Now Eileen’s lungs were failing and the goal was to keep her as comfortable as possible.

Throughout her life, Eileen had worn many hats as working wife and mother, and as an avid supporter of children and youth. She served as the office manager at Hunter Pool Center for 38 years and she was the owner and manager of a horse farm and training facility in Chesire. Her upbeat attitude made her popular in her community and with the staff caring for her at Gaylord. Always alert for ways to help others, Eileen had arranged for some of her horses and riding students to visit patients at Masonicare over the past few years. Eileen now needed some of that same nurturing therapy for herself. She longed to see her horses again and happened to mention her desire to one of her nurses. Then a family member contacted the hospital wondering if they could bring the horses to Gaylord.

Behind the scenes Eileen’s quiet wish and her family’s inquiry resulted in a beehive of activity. Peggy Bartram, director of respiratory services, received a chain of emails regarding the request. There were concerns about Eileen’s health and questions about bringing a horse onto the hospital’s property. For Peggy, these were minor obstacles. After assessing Eileen’s health Peggy said, “Of course we can do this – just tell us when and where!” Swinging into action, Peggy knew that she might need to jump a few hurdles to get approval for the visit.

As Peggy and other staff members worked at rallying support from multiple departments including facilities, nursing, respiratory, the administration and C-suite, Eileen’s health continued to decline. She was receiving the highest respiratory assistance possible for her breathing without being on a ventilator. But the respiratory team was still confident they could move Eileen with breathing support.

On the morning of Wednesday, October 23rd, Eileen’s daughter, Karen Hunter Bobbi, was wondering if she would be able to fulfill her mother’s wish. Then she received a call from Sandy Delong, the unit manager on Milne 2. Gaylord’s management team had given the go ahead! Could Karen bring the horses TODAY? Shaken, Karen asked if her mother had gotten worse and Sandy said yes. Sandy explained that the new plan was to transport Eileen to the lobby in her hospital bed rather than using a wheelchair. Karen quickly went to work loading the two horses she thought her mother would like to see, Boy Toy and Caesar. They arrived at Gaylord early that afternoon.

Woman with two horses at the hospital doors Boy Toy is seven years old, an adolescent in horse years. Eileen first saw him as a baby at a friend’s stable and named him from afar, not knowing that she would eventually own him. Like many adolescents, Boy Toy can be a bit feisty and he likes to make it clear he’s the boss. Caesar is the mature adult presence that balances Boy Toy’s youth. He is 29 years old, mellow and calm and has boarded at Eileen’s farm for years. For Eileen, Caesar and Boy Toy are members of the family.

As the medical team readied Eileen for the reunion, her respiratory therapists and nurses made sure that everything was coordinated to support her breathing. Eileen’s condition required high-flow oxygen equipment that provided a constant supply of oxygen. But no one was sure how many canisters of oxygen she would need for the trips through the hospital and during the reunion. Two respiratory technicians stood ready to quickly exchange and refill the canisters. As Eileen’s journey began there was an air of expectation, hope and excitement. Would seeing her horses be all that Eileen hoped for? How would the horses respond?

When Eileen’s bed rolled into the lobby it was obvious that Brooker was uniquely equipped for this event. The sloping sidewalk made it easy to get the horses to the doors. The double doorway allowed the foot of Eileen’s bed to go to the edge of the entrance and there was ample room for the horses to put their heads inside and over the bed. The high ceiling made the lobby feel spacious – an important factor because horses don’t like small spaces.

Boy Toy and Caesar quickly spotted Eileen as they neared the door. Becoming very quiet, they took turns poking their heads inside. Unaffected by the breathing mask covering her face, they seemed to instantly sense her vulnerability and fragility. The horses nuzzled Eileen gently, delicately touching her pale hands with their noses and staring directly into her eyes. Boy Toy carefully poked his nose in Eileen’s covers hoping to find the carrots she always brought him and then he gently laid his head on her lap. As the two huge animals tenderly greeted their friend it seemed to energize Eileen. For the medical team, family members and other staff watching these loving interactions – there wasn’t a dry eye in the room.

As Eileen’s breathing equipment hummed in the background the unsung heroes of the day, the two respiratory technicians, kept a constant pace exchanging the oxygen canisters and running them to the basement for refilling. Under normal circumstances Eileen would have probably used only one or two canisters, but during this time she used nine.

After the reunion her nurses were stunned by the changes in Eileen. She was energized, smiling and talking with people. Later in the day she was snapping photos of her family and sharing pictures on her iPad. Her energy and desire to live seemed to be revived. “All the oxygen in the world couldn’t do what that reunion did,” said Sandy Delong. “Medicine couldn’t do what being reunited with those horses did!”

It took a team of 30 to 40 people to pull off the reunion. Many of the staff said there was a palpable shift in their energy and motivation as a result of this experience. In medicine there are some outcomes that can’t be changed, but there are times we can impact how an outcome happens. When these opportunities occur it is often as powerful for those providing the care as it is for those who are receiving it.

*Eileen was able to go home where she received hospice care and she could see her horses from her window. She passed away on November 27, 2013. 

Click to download the pdf.


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