In sickness and in health
Courtney Davis, an emergency medicine nurse at Michigan Medicine, immediately got to work after talking to her patient’s family.
This wasn’t going to be her normal nursing shift.
“I worked with a few of the other nurses to start creating signs and decorations and acquiring a few fun things from the social work team that we used to devise the arch,” Davis said.
Davis had just acquired a new title: wedding planner.
The Clark family
Brenda Clark, Ed.D., was busy in her role as president and chief executive officer of the MBA Research and Curriculum Center in Columbus, Ohio, and would travel back to be with her family, husband, David, and children, Robert, Courtney, Tyler and Faith, in Muskegon, Michigan, on weekends.
After having a lingering cough most of the summer, Brenda’s friend told her she should have it checked out. While she thought it was nothing — just a side effect of being busy — she decided to go to the doctor in September 2019.
“They took an X-ray to see what was going on and there was a large mass on her lung,” David said. “They said it was stage 4 lung cancer.”
The Clark family turned to the Rogel Cancer Center for Brenda’s care and met with Theodore Lawrence, M.D., Ph.D., a professor and chair of the Department of Radiation Oncology, and Gregory Kalemkerian, M.D., a professor of oncology, the first week of October.
“They said it had already begun spreading to her brain and they needed to fit her for a mask for radiation on her head,” David said.
The Clark family came back to Ann Arbor the evening of Oct. 10, 2019, for Brenda’s appointment with her oncology care team the next morning.
“We were all staying at a nearby hotel, and at 3 a.m. Brenda started making strange noises,” David said. “At 5 a.m. she became unresponsive and was rushed to Michigan Medicine in an ambulance.”
Brenda was brought to the Massey Family Foundation Emergency Critical Care Center, more commonly called the EC3, at Michigan Medicine.
“There were 20 or more people lining the hallway waiting for us when we arrived, including members of Dr. Kalemkerian’s care team,” David said. “They all went right to work.”
David said Brenda’s oncology care team had initially hoped they could treat her and get her back to a stable condition to continue with her cancer treatments.
“She just deteriorated so quickly,” David said.
Devising a plan
Davis arrived to her shift on Friday, Oct. 11, 2019, and was briefed on the patient in the EC3’s room 93: Brenda Clark.
“The Clark family inspired me from the moment I stepped into their room,” Davis said.
“When I came on my night shift, the day team had worked tirelessly to correct the extensive problems that Mrs. Clark was experiencing,” she said. “An emergency department team’s nightmare had become a reality. We couldn’t cure or fix our patient and now it was time to explain that finality to the family.”
Davis, the day care team and her fellow night care team members went into the Clarks’ room to talk with the family about the next phase in Brenda’s care plan and the ultimate goal of making her comfortable.
“The family was rightly and appropriately devastated,” Davis said.
After much of the extended Clark family had left for the day, David chatted with Davis.
“He told me that his daughter Courtney’s boyfriend, Ben, had asked him just a few weeks ago for the family heirloom ring and he planned to ask Courtney for her hand in marriage, and that the proposal was supposed to take place that very weekend on Mackinac Island,” Davis said.
“Then he asked me if they could have the wedding in Mrs. Clark’s room so she could be present for her daughter’s wedding day, and that they would not bother the unit or other patients.”
Davis didn’t hesitate.
“I told him that we could absolutely host his daughter’s wedding and that I would do all in my power to make it as special as possible and they wouldn’t have to worry about a thing,” she said.
Davis immediately went to work enlisting the help of her fellow EC3 nursing staff.
“We made all types of decorations including signs that said ‘Congratulations, Ben and Courtney’ and ‘Just Married,’” Davis said. “We worked to make the room more comfortable and soothing, hanging lights. I positioned the arch they would be married under right in front of Mrs. Clark so she would have the best view in the house.”
Davis wanted Brenda to feel her best, too.
“Mrs. Clark had a test performed earlier in the day that left glue in her hair,” she said. “I washed and brushed her hair so the remnants of her treatment would be less conspicuous.”
She added, “When my shift drew to a close, I asked another EC3 nurse, Malinda Morrison, if she would take over. I knew she was perfect for the job because she’s compassionate, caring and I knew that she would be 100 percent dedicated to carrying on the mission Mr. Clark and I had devised.”
It was time to host a wedding.
“Courtney and Ben met in the Peace Corps in Africa,” David said. “They both were evacuated in 2014 because of the Ebola outbreak. They both got jobs in Washington, D.C., and have been together since.”
Word spread fast throughout the EC3 that it was Courtney and Ben’s wedding day. Within minutes, several team members donated funds, purchased items or volunteered their time to make the wedding go off without a hitch.
“I was approached by several staff members who were all eager to help in any way they could,” Morrison said. “We had people immediately figure out a way to purchase a wedding cake, volunteer their musical talents to play live music during the ceremony and make arrangements to have a boutonniere, corsage and bridal flowers delivered.”
Morrison and the Clark daughters did Brenda’s makeup, helped her put on a beautiful dress and be ready for her front-row seat at the ceremony.
“My favorite part of the preparation was getting Mrs. Clark ready with her daughters and seeing Mr. Clark’s reaction when he first saw her done-up,” Morrison said.
“He told her she was beautiful, and there wasn’t a dry eye in the room.”
Courtney and Ben were married in the EC3 that afternoon.
“The ceremony was such a beautiful thing to witness,” Morrison said. “To see a family pull together and make the best of a heart-shattering situation was incredible. There was so much love and appreciation, and I think everyone felt a part of it.”
To ensure Courtney, Ben and the Clark family would have a way to look back at the special day for years to come, Cecile Hollinshead, an emergency medicine physician assistant, volunteered her photography talents throughout the day.
“I do photography as a hobby and my passion is to capture moments,” Hollinshead said. “It was a beautiful time to be able to merge my two passions: medicine and photography. I felt that I was scheduled to be in the EC3 that day for a reason.”
And no wedding would be complete without a reception. William Meurer, M.D., an associate professor of emergency medicine and Brenda’s attending physician, provided a reception dinner for the family.
“Mr. Clark saw me in the back crying,” Meurer said. “It moved me a lot. I had been at the bedside with my grandmother and mother-in-law at the ends of their natural lives and it’s a powerful experience. I’m glad we could make this happen for the Clark family.”
Compassion and empathy are traits many of Brenda’s care team embody.
“I lost my dad to cancer and he was in hospice for months,” Hollinshead said. “I wish he was a part of my siblings’ or my special day. I thought what a special thing to do in what would be such a somber moment for the Clark family.”
Davis agreed, “I empathized and connected with the Clark family because I share the same age and name as their eldest daughter and bride, Courtney. I too am engaged, planning my own wedding. My mom is a breast cancer survivor that I am blessed to still have with me. It was so easy for me to empathize with this family because, in another world, this could have been me, my family and my mom that I was saying goodbye to way too soon.”
A legacy lives on
The next morning, Sunday, Oct. 13, 2019, Brenda Clark passed away at 59 years old.
“Social work gifted us clay mold kits so we could have her handprints with us,” David said.
He’s been working through how to handle the grief of losing his wife.
“I’ve tried to walk into the grief and have been encouraging my children to attend grief programs,” David said. “There are days when I have lapses and I get angry, but I have to be the strong one for my family.”
He takes comfort in knowing Brenda’s legacy will live on through education, one of her passions.
“She had impacted thousands of educators and students through her teaching work,” David said. “That legacy will always continue.”
He’s appreciative of the EC3 staff and the care they provided Brenda and his family.
“They were all so humble and modest in everything they did for us,” David said. “In fact, Ben was previously studying engineering, but after the care shown by the team, he has had a change of heart and has decided to study nursing. I’ll always remember this care team.”
One way he keeps them with him: He wears the cross necklace Morrison had purchased for Brenda from the hospital gift shop.
“I’ve worn it every single day since the funeral,” David said.
In January 2020, David visited the EC3 to thank the staff and give them a gift of his own.
“I brought them a set of string lights for each room in the center,” David said. “Those lights made Brenda’s room feel more comforting.”
Davis, Morrison and the team were thrilled to see David at the visit.
“It was very heart-warming to see that Mr. Clark now wears the necklace that I bought for Mrs. Clark to wear for the ceremony,” Morrison said. “Caring for Mrs. Clark and her family that day was a prime example of why I became a nurse in the first place: to make a difference.”
“It was a very difficult time for Mr. Clark and his family, however, I am incredibly proud of our staff who went above and beyond to make this memory for this family which will stay with them, and us, for the rest of our lives,” said Benjamin Bassin, M.D., an assistant professor of emergency medicine and the EC3’s director of clinical operations.
Davis agreed, “Seeing Mr. Clark really solidified the impact our team can have on patients and their families.”
She added, “We see people on their worst of days and their best of days. We have the capacity to significantly impact, influence and change the lives of our patients and their families, and that should never be taken for granted.”
For more stories like this one, visit the U-M Health Blog.