Losing a family member or loved one is one of the most difficult life experiences – especially if that loss occurs without loved ones present.

During the COVID-19 pandemic, many hospitals, including Scarborough Health Network (SHN) reduced the number of visitors in the hospital to protect patients and their families and health care workers. A painful side effect of this meant some family members would watch their loved ones pass from afar.

As a way to help support these families, SHN launched the Heartbeat in a Bottle campaign for the family members of critically ill patients who died in the hospital without visitors by their side.

“It’s been heart-breaking to watch families grieve through a window, unable to hold their love ones’ hand, stroke their hair, or sit by their side as they pass,” noted Linda Taitt, Registered Nurse in the Critical Care Unit. “This initiative is a way for us to provide some comfort and support to those families who weren’t able to be physically present.”

A team consisting of the COVID-19 task force, social workers, SHN’s spiritual care team Nerissa Solis, Colleen Weaver, Jasmine Tse, and a community liaison, prepares a kit that is mailed to family members and includes an ECG strip, which shows a clipping of their loved one’s heartbeat before they died.

“There isn’t one person on our team who doesn’t see each individual as a person – somebody’s father or mother, sister, uncle, grandmother, or friend,” shared Dr. Martin Betts, Chief and Medical Director, Critical Care. “We do our absolute best to deliver exceptional care which includes compassion for the patient and essential health partners, no matter what.”

Accompanying that heartbeat in a bottle is a note from SHN’s critical care team:

Your heartbeat I hold in my hand. A simple strip of paper filled with the essence of you.

The heart is the core of our being; the place we hold our joy and sorrow; our courage and loyalty, our faith.

Holding the image of yours fills me with the special essence that was you. Though your heart no longer beats, this essence permeates my heart and I carry you with me each day.

Dear Family,

We hope your loved one’s heartbeat will bring you comfort as the days go by. The above thoughts are from our Critical Care Team.

For family members gifted with this final keepsake, it offers many ways for them to meaningfully mark the life of those they lost: an engraved necklace with the heartbeat, a custom framed photograph in the home, or even a tattoo.

Click here for more information on SHN’s response to COVID-19.