The email pops up in the lower right corner of my computer screen at the clinic with two words in the subject line, “Angel Wings.” I know what’s coming. Since 1994, those two words have stopped me in my tracks every single time they appear. I take a deep breath, and click “open” to read its contents.

Sometimes, the message is brief. “Joe Black died at home on January 3, 2009 due to Pulmonary HTN. He was a fine man who struggled with renal failure and HIV. He will be missed.”

Sometimes more detail is provided. “Jane White died January 4, 2009 in the hospital from complications of right hip hemiarthroplasty. She developed hypotension, falling hematocrit, and multisystem organ failure, and hepatic encephalopathy according to autopsy report. She was a professor of journalism at the University. Her disability never stopped her (hemophilia, hepatitis C, HIV, chronic kidney disease, past septic arthritis, ect). She had an upbeat, positive attitude, and often minimized her complaints. I truly will miss seeing her.”

The email is a death notice about our patients sent by one of our nurses, doctors, chaplains, social workers, medical records staff or whoever hears the word first.

No matter how it is written, or who its author is, it is always significant.

Josie Grable, who worked in Medical Records in 1994, started the “Angel Wings” tradition as a way to notify all staff about the deaths of our patients.  We had less than 500 active patients at the time but still had at least one death every single day. It was like hearing about the death of a distant or close relative every day you came to work.

Today, we have more than 1600 active patients, with just a handful more staff.  We have approximately one death per week rather than per day. The death ratio is better, but it is still too many.

Every Friday at noon our clinic staff of 60-70 persons crowd into our conference room to break bread together, receive updates, and connect with one another.

One of the things we do is say the name of the person out loud who died this past week.  We have a moment of silence to remember the impact this person had on us, his or her loved ones, and the world. It is a silent, sacred moment. We take a deep breath and then move ahead with the duties we have been called to do.

If there is one thing I have learned these past 15 years is that each life matters.   We remember.
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FOLLOW-UP NOTE: On October 30, 2008, an “Angel Wings” email arrived from Wes Akins, one of our social workers that said:

“Some of you may know Josie Grable who was a part of the 1917 clinic family for years.   She died this week after a long illness and was surrounded with the love of family and friends.

Josie was an artist, a musician, a free spirit and a lover of all people. She cared deeply for the patients that we served at 1917. Karen Head, a long time friend, represented the 1917 clinic at Josie’s celebration of life this morning. Please keep Karen in your prayers.

Josie continued touching lives at the assisted living facility where she lived and served as a musician and grounds keeper.  She was a breath of fresh air to the residents there.

Thank-you Josie… you will be missed.”