A "heartbeat in a bottle," was given to Anthony Kellam for his sister and his father.

A “heartbeat in a bottle,” was given to Anthony Kellam for his sister and father.

Sentara Commitments: Always treat you with dignity, respect and compassion. 

Losing a loved one is hard.  And no one understands the toll that can take on families and friends more than the nurses, doctors and staff who deal with death and grief alongside hope and healing.  It was the nurturing spirit that led Nellie Melitas, a now retired nurse who worked on the Burn Trauma Unit at Sentara Norfolk General Hospital for 35 years, to create a program that would bring comfort to grieving families.  Affectionately referred to as a “heart beat in a bottle,” Melitas took a simple EKG rhythm strip from patients who were not going to make it and placed it into a small medication vial.  The tracing strip of the patient’s heart beat includes the patient name and date and the entire token is small enough to be carried in a pocket.

As a night shift employee, Melitas would prepare the bottles and then pass them along to day shift nurses for presentation to the families.  So touched were the families by this act of kindness that day shift employees and staff on other units began to adopt the program in areas throughout the hospital.  More than 10 years after Melitas began the program, it is now a legacy that continues and has even spread to other Sentara hospitals.

Shannon Baker, who manages the BTU today, explains the impact this program can have on staff and patient families.  “It is important when you realize that a patient is not going to make it that there is something you can do to provide comfort for the family,” she adds.  “In our experience, this token is something they can treasure for years.”

Anthony Kellam, a Norfolk resident, understands all too well how much these mementos mean to families.  In December of 2011, Kellam lost his sister at SNGH after she had been shot.  Having her heart beat tracing allowed Kellam and his grieving family something to carry with them.  Less than one year later, Kellam received a second “heart beat in a bottle” when his father passed away from congestive heart failure, also at SNGH.  While nothing can remove the sadness of the loss, Kellam is grateful to have a physical keepsake to display and remember those he loved and lost.

“Any time you can provide a moment of relief to a family who is grieving, you feel as though you are helping in some small way,” adds Valerie Carroll, manager of the General ICU at SNGH.  “We are happy to be able to give them something to hold in their hand.”

Kellam agrees.  “I can’t touch you. I can’t hold you. I can’t speak to you anymore. But I can look at your heartbeats and know that you’re still here,” he says.

Learn more about The Sentara Commitments.

Read the article,  “Memories, just a heartbeat away for loved ones,”  which was recently featured in PilotOnline.com