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Family reunited after three decades thanks to the unwavering dedication of a VCU Health care team

Recognizing the complexities of a patient’s situation, a dedicated team of nurses and social workers track down the family of a man who was experiencing homelessness.

A family with two adult children and their father stand with two VCU Health team members who helped to reunite them. The five people are all smiling as they take a group picture. Aretha Lewis, RN, BSN, and Matrese Herbart, MSW, are part of the VCU Health care team who helped reconnect a patient with his adult children. (VCU Enterprise Marketing and Communications)

By Pete Woody

Patients in the VCU Medical Center Short Stay Unit are typically only there for a day or two – being observed by care teams, recovering from surgery or waiting for test results.

But a group of dedicated nurses and a social worker noticed how one person, Mr. White, was facing extraordinary challenges while getting ready to leave the hospital.

Working collaboratively with a limited amount of time, they managed to fulfill Mr. White’s request to be reunited with his family, who he hadn’t seen in more than 30 years.

“While speaking to [Mr. White’s daughter on the phone], I could hear the little girl that yearned for her dad,” Matrese Herbart, MSW, a licensed clinical social worker in VCU Health’s Department of Support Services, said of their phone conversation. “She said, ‘You just don’t know what you’ve done for me. We’ve hired private investigators, and no one could find him. And you have given us back something that we have been longing for.’”

This family reunion took place over just a few days in May of 2023, thanks to the unwavering dedication VCU Health team members have to their patients, families as well as each other.


Short stay that wasn’t so short

Shameka Hewlett, MSN, the Short Stay Unit’s interim nurse manager, is always checking in with her nurses to learn more about the patients in their care.

She noticed something was different about Mr. White’s case when Aretha Lewis, RN, BSN, clinical nurse III on the Short Stay Unit, told her about his situation. He was initially admitted to the emergency department for an acute medical issue and was still in the unit after three days.

“I would stand at his door and talk to him, ask him how he’s doing, he was the sweetest man ever, he’s had some circumstances in life, but just generally very sweet,” said Hewlett. “He wanted someone to talk to, he would ask how team members are doing, and as the week went by, we expected to see him.”

Over time, Hewlett and Lewis learned that Mr. White was experiencing homelessness at the time and began efforts to help him navigate available resources for when it came time for discharge.

“He was just so humble, the minimum he received was enough for him,” Lewis said.

As their bond continued to grow, Lewis spent more time listening to Mr. White’s desires for when he was discharged from the hospital and learned of his reluctance to go to a shelter.

It was pressing to find a suitable solution for Mr. White. At this point in the week, time was of the essence. At the time, the Short Stay Unit closed at 7 p.m. on Fridays, meaning Mr. White would have to either be discharged to another unit or back to his previous living situation.

In another part of the hospital, Matrese Herbart was having a conversation with another social worker about Mr. White that would, in Lewis’ words, lead to Herbart joining the case to “work her miracle.”

Trying to return home

With a background that includes, in her words, “pretty much everything” in a health care setting, Herbart is no stranger to complex cases. That’s what led her colleague to seek her out for assistance with Mr. White.

After several conversations with a nurse case manager, Herbart made a trip to Mr. White’s room to meet him for an initial conversation, which, combined with the tight timeline to find a resolution, helped clarify Herbart’s thinking.

“I knew that we were on borrowed time because the short stay unit was going to close,” Herbart recalled. “So pretty much that was my all-day mission. He was it for me all day.”

We are all here for the patients, and it takes every single discipline. Not one person can do it by themselves. It takes everyone to take care of our patients. Everyone.

– Matrese Herbart, licensed clinical social worker at VCU Health

When speaking with Mr. White, Herbart says she took an informal approach that helps put patients at ease.

“I feel like if you’re interviewing people, they become a little guarded,” she said. “So, I always like to have a general conversation. I make jokes, they warm up to me… I always tell them when I’m with you, nothing else matters.”

It was then Mr. White shared his true desire: after being estranged from his family for 30 years, he wanted to return home.

Undaunted, Herbart set about working to reconnect him with his family, while also helping him gain access to his bank accounts. Persistence and a handful of scraps of paper from Mr. White’s wallet eventually helped Herbart get in touch with his cousin over the phone.

As Herbart explained the situation, Mr. White’s cousin was in disbelief.

“We began to talk, and she says, ‘Oh my God, we’ve been looking for him,’” Herbart recalled. The cousin also shared that Mr. White had children who had made many unsuccessful attempts to locate him over the years.

After contacting other family members, Herbart found out that Mr. White’s children were coming to pick him up.

“I was so emotional, I was crying,” Herbart said. “I think myself and the nurse case manager were crying all day.”

Three VCU Health team members are working in a unit. They are sitting at a desk, filling out patient information together.

Matrese Herbart, MSW, Aretha Lewis, RN, BSN, and Shameka Hewlett, MSN, worked together to care for Mr. White, a patient experiencing homelessness who was in VCU Medical Center's Short Stay Unit. (VCU Enterprise Marketing and Communications)

While waiting for the family to arrive, Lewis and Herbart were helping Mr. White get ready with a new set of clothes. As Mr. White was starting to get dressed and ready for discharge, Lewis could see a group of people standing at the nurses’ station on the floor of the unit.

“I did not think that was the family, and then the son burst in the door. He said he hadn’t seen his dad in 31 years, he doesn’t care how he looks, he wants to see him now,” Lewis said. “Then, he grabbed his dad, his dad pulled back and called his name and said, ‘take your mask off, let me see your face.’… I just had to leave the room, I was done, I needed a timeout.”

Herbart knew she’d be feeling similar emotions, and almost opted against seeing the reunion at all for that reason.

“I knew I was going to be crying the whole time. That’s why I didn’t want to. Before I even got to the floor I was crying,” Herbart said. “When I did go back, it was his son, his daughter, and the daughter’s husband that came to pick [Mr. White] up. And what I saw from that family that I’ve never seen [before] was there was no blame. It was just all rejoicing, happy, just grateful. And I was like wow, this is so amazing.”

“I still pinch myself. After 31 years they could have said to him, ‘You abandoned us, you weren’t there for us,’” Lewis said. “And all the stories they were telling were just good childhood memories.”

“It takes everyone to care for our patients”

Mr. White continues to spend time with his family after the reunion and has returned to VCU Medical Center for several follow-up appointments.

During those trips, he has also visited the Short Stay Unit, sharing updates on his new life with his care team. The visits also give Herbart, Hewlett and Lewis a chance to also reflect on what took place and their role in making it happen.

“This is like victory to me. To me this is worth more than money, when you can bring families together like this,” Herbart said. “This is why I do what I do.”

“You have these moments and it’s like, this is why we do it,” Hewlett added. “It touches your heart; makes you feel like you did something to change someone’s life.”

These team members also believe VCU Health’s mission of patient-centered care and culture of collaboration empowered them to take the steps to bring this family back together.

“I think we truly change lives,” Hewlett said. “At the end of the day all of our team wants to make a great impact on someone’s life… we want to help, and this is the best place get help."

By listening intently, Lewis made Mr. White feel seen and heard, building trust and making sure this patient didn’t feel alone. Hewlett stepping in to support Lewis and Mr. White, building more connections to ensure he could be successful upon discharge.

And as Hewlett says, “[Herbart] didn’t have to go the extra mile but she did. Someone else may not have dug into the story like she did, that effort she put forth changed everything.”

“Because at the end of the day, this is all about the patients,” Herbart said. “We are all here for the patients, and it takes every single discipline. Not one person can do it by themselves. It takes everyone to take care of our patients. Everyone.”