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Showing Barnes-Jewish Team Members They Matter—One Person at a Time

There are many things you’d expect to see and hear in the hallways and at the nursing stations throughout Barnes-Jewish Hospital, but a ukulele and a Tibetan singing bowl are definitely not among them. Yet, almost magically, the sounds of these instruments suddenly float through the air, much to the surprise and delight of the hospital’s staff.

The You Matter Cart is coming! It’s approaching an unannounced hospital destination to bring a few minutes of respite and relaxation to frontline caregivers. This funky blue cart grew out of a partnership between four hospital nurses, Cindy Lefton, Sara Shabany, Cathy Powers and Heather Ohl, along with Sarah Colby, Arts + Healthcare Program coordinator. Their goal is to bring the hospital’s peer wellness initiative directly to colleagues who are feeling pressure and stress from the pandemic.  

The cart is primarily funded by the generosity of donors through The Foundation for Barnes-Jewish Hospital. As the cart’s visibility has increased, the initiative has been championed by Shirley Repta, Barnes-Jewish Hospital executive director of psychiatric services, who has been spreading the word and offering great support. Unexpected donations have come in from fellow team members and friends in the community.

“It gives us the persona of an ice cream truck driving down street,” says Cathy, a clinical nurse specialist in the Heart & Vascular Center. “It’s almost like a pop-up. They never know when we’ll show up.”

“They think ‘what the heck is this,’” says Sara, a holistic nurse and yoga instructor who works in the hospital’s Emergency Department. “People are literally shocked.”

Heather, who taught herself how to play the ukulele when COVID-19 hit, strums “The Lion Sleeps Tonight” or “Over the Rainbow” as the cart rolls toward its port of call. Then Sara plays a Tibetan singing bowl, a type of bell that vibrates and produces a rich, deep tone. The sound is used to promote relaxation and help healing.

The cart itself carries a curious conglomeration of small gifts meant to give a smile to team members who desperately need a break. It’s filled with such things as lip balm, hand lotion, sachets of lavender, herbal tea, candy and nuts, small journals, magnets with words of encouragement and the very popular black tourmaline crystals that are believed to ward off negative energy.

“You can’t believe how much black tourmaline we give away,” says Sarah. “We tell them to take what they need today. Sometimes it’s just a piece of chocolate or maybe they will take a bit of everything. Sometimes people tear up because you’ve hit at just that moment when a kind word means that much.”

The cart’s maiden voyage was July 17, 2020, and the visits, which are called “whirls,” can last anywhere between two and seven hours. As of late November, the cart had reached more than 2,500 staff members throughout the hospital’s many different units and departments. Although the cart team members usually decide the random destinations, they are now getting requests and referrals.

While the You Matter Cart might be new, the WeCare peer program aimed at helping Barnes-Jewish Hospital team members deal with stress and exhaustion started in 2016. It was preceded in 2011 with the Building Resiliency for Compassion Fatigue series of classes to help caregivers acquire the psychological tools they need to cope with daily challenges. Cathy was the lead facilitator of the classes, which were suspended when the pandemic began.    

After the classes stopped, Cathy said she was approached by emergency department nurses Sara and Cindy, who also has a PhD in industrial and organizational psychology, with an idea to bring a wellness project directly to health care workers who don’t have time to leave their posts.

“I was on the COVID-19 swab team that took me all over the hospital,” says Cindy. “I got to see what was going on. People were too busy to get off their floors so we had to go to them. We were seeing people who were just zapped.”

They then connected with the Arts + Healthcare Program’s Sarah. She’s the hospital’s well-known earth mother figure often seen wheeling her art cart to patients, allowing them to engage in crafts projects and chat with someone from the outside world. 

“She made the You Matter Cart come to life,” says Cindy. “Sarah is masterful in putting things on that cart. She knows how to reach the innards of people.”

The women all knew from the beginning that the cart would be a good thing, but they didn’t realize how powerful it would be. Bonnie Crawley, Barnes-Jewish Hospital team member said, “Our staff absolutely loved this cart. It brought so much joy. Thank you for caring enough to make a genuine difference in the lives of our hard-working team members!”

“It’s not the gift, the tangible, it’s the intangible, taking a moment to let people know they matter,” Cindy says. “In that moment you get into their life. It’s that human-to-human connection. But it’s good for us too. We see how their spirts are lifted. We know we’re making a difference by helping them make a difference.”

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