INDIANAPOLIS — Annie Burford smiles when she sees the pinwheels twirling in the afternoon breeze, forming a multicolor celebration of life.
As a respiratory clinical specialist for Franciscan Health, Burford delights in knowing that each of the 466 pinwheels represents a COVID-19 patient who has been discharged from the health care system’s Indianapolis and Mooresville hospitals to date.
And the 42-year-old mother of two savors sharing the story of the patient she thought of when she planted one of the pinwheels in what has become known as the Pinwheel Garden of Hope and Health.
“She was the first person we were able to get off the ventilator,” said Burford, who was instrumental in setting up the Indianapolis hospital’s COVID Cohort Unit in March. “When that happened, all the nurses and all the respiratory therapists stood outside the room and cheered for the patient. It was so awesome.”
So was the send-off the woman received on the day she was released from the hospital.
“The hospital announced they were going to play the ‘Rocky’ (theme) song when she was discharged,” Burford said. “They were playing the song, and employees were lined up in the hospital as they brought her down in a wheelchair. Everyone was clapping and cheering. She had her arms raised up. She was so excited to leave. It was very emotional.”
“Very emotional” also is the way Burford described the past six months or more of caring for coronavirus patients.
“In the 20 years I’ve been doing this, it’s the hardest time I’ve had to work through. Everything that I’ve learned in the past 20 years came to this moment where we had to change everything we did to adapt to this pandemic,” she told The Criterion, archdiocesan newspaper of Indianapolis.
Like many health care workers on the front lines of the crisis, Burford has bonded with patients in a way she had never done before, becoming like family to patients who couldn’t be visited by their families.
She also saw some of her patients lose their battle with the disease and made the heartbreaking phone calls to their loved ones.
“I’ve also bonded with people who were able to come off the ventilator and go home. That’s why I love the pinwheel garden so much,” she remarked. “It’s an amazing way to celebrate the patient’s success after recovering from the coronavirus. I know when I planted my pinwheel, I also thought about all the staff who worked so hard to keep the patient alive.”
Franciscan Sister Marlene Shapley also has experienced the powerful impact of being there when a COVID-19 patient has been discharged from the hospital. “They’re overcome by the emotion of going home,” said the vice president of mission integration for Franciscan Health.
Sister Shapley also has been moved by personally planting pinwheels in the garden.
“It’s a very touching experience. You realize you’re putting it in because someone went home. We’re celebrating the success and the hope.”
She described the garden as an “exterior sign of sharing our joy with the community around us — and with our staff. Many times, we celebrate the little miracles of someone getting better, someone being taken off a ventilator, someone requiring a little less level of care.”
Nearly every department of the hospital was involved in planting the pinwheels, from nursing to engineering, from respiratory to housekeeping.
“They all touch the patient’s life in one way or another,” Sister Shapley said. “We wanted to get every department involved in celebrating our successes.”
She pointed out that even though she isn’t involved in the direct care of patients, she knows she can do something to help even by holding a hand or praying or crying with someone.
She followed that approach recently when the brother of one of her fellow Franciscan sisters was admitted into the Indianapolis hospital with the virus.
“He was critical and declining rapidly,” she said, adding that the family had to make the decision that nothing could be done and to take him off the ventilator. “I sat with that family and cried with that family. As difficult as it was, it was a beautiful experience for his children to be here and to go in and say goodbye.”
“It doesn’t get easier,” Sister Shapley said. “I’ve lost three brothers and both of my parents. The pain never goes away, but we learn to live with the pain.”
She took a breath and her voice turned hopeful as she reconsidered her previous use of the word “goodbye.”
“We as Catholics believe we will be reunited in eternity. We don’t say, ‘Goodbye.’ We say, ‘We’ll see you later,’“ she said. “Because we believe in the resurrection of the body and the soul — and the reuniting of the body and soul in eternity.”
The author, John Shaughnessy, is assistant editor of The Criterion, newspaper of the Archdiocese of Indianapolis.