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Valley native creates Be There Bears for ICU patients, gains national recognition

Michelle poses with some of the Be There Bears | Photo: Bon Secours
Michelle poses with some of the Be There Bears | Photo: Bon Secours(WHSV)
Published: May. 18, 2020 at 4:02 PM EDT
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Be There Bears are an initiative created by Michelle Vaughan to help keep COVID-19 patients in the ICU connected with their families as they undergo treatment.

Vaughan is a nurse at Bon Secours St. Mary's hospital in Richmond, but grew in in Port Republic. She said she came up with the idea for Be There Bears when she realized the possibility of her own mortality as a nurse who was treating patients with the coronavirus.

This realization prompted Vaughan to start recording messages to her children. As she recorded those messages, she realized that it would be a wonderful tool for families who have members in the ICU who are sedated and intubated, leaving them unable to communicate.

Megan Wright, a clinical care lead nurse at Bon Secours St. Mary's Hospital, said the moment Michelle brought the idea to the table, the hospital was on board. Wright said that they contact family members and ask if they would like to make a 20 second recording through a bear with a recording device in it.

"They get very excited and then they want to get all of their family involved, so usually we end up calling a day or two later so they can have several people on the phone," Wright said. "Sometimes it might hit them in the middle of the recording that this might be the last message that they record, so it is emotional at times."

Immediately after recording the message, the bear gets delivered into the arms of the patient.

Vaughan said that she has seen the power of connection with her patients. One time in particular, she played a patient's message as he woke up from sedation and she said he recognized it right away.

"His eyes got wide and he shook his head so exaggeratedly that I screamed, I jumped up in the room. I said, 'Yes! That's your family!'" Vaughan exclaimed.

The bears stay with patients when they leave the ICU. Vaughan said when patients leave, they are far from going home. Most of the patients have more months ahead of them in the hospital and a rehabilitation facility. Other staff members have reached out to tell her that the bears make a big difference as patients get healthy again.

"They're telling me that, you know, once they play these bears, their demeanor changes, their attitude changes."

Vaughan has been nationally honored for her work. She was interviewed by Fox News and was chosen as part of a group of frontline workers to be a grand marshal for NASCAR's race on Sunday. NASCAR driver Denny Hamlin posted a

honoring her, and had her name on his car for the race.

"It's weird, it's wild, it's really cool, I'm pleased with that but it's really weird!" Vaughan said.

Although the national spotlight has been different for Vaughan, she is hoping that her story will inspire others.

"I would love nothing more than for this to go national and for all hospitals to pick this up in some form," Vaughan said.

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