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Tampa General nurses record the last heartbeats of dying patients, making a family memory

TAMPA — As John Reisinger waited with family at Tampa General Hospital, grief settled in like a fog. So some of the details are hazy.

But he remembers the moment when three women in white lab coats approached him.

The day before, his niece, Jessica Raubenolt, had been struck and killed by a speeding car as she legally crossed Bayshore Boulevard with her 21-month-old daughter, Lillia.

A bystander had kept the girl’s heart beating. But now, in the neonatal intensive care unit, she was fading.

The women had some paperwork. They asked for permission to record Lillia’s heartbeat.

"Of course with the emotional state of the immediate family, I told them to go ahead and record it, that we’d have the paperwork signed in time," Reisinger said.

That night, a team of nurses and staff from Tampa General captured audio from the dying child’s heart. They later added music and offered it to the family as a keepsake — part of the hospital’s Beats of Love program, which began last year, with a focus on critical patients.

Anthony Goodwin, a musician by trade who plays guitar for Tampa General patients, uses his audio engineering experience to save the heartbeats for families to listen to on their own.

"We wanted to help families cope with the unfathomable loss of a child," said Dr. Maya Balakrishnan, a neonatologist at the hospital and an associate professor of pediatrics at the USF Morsani College of Medicine.

She described Goodwin’s role as "creating magic."

Reisinger remembers Goodwin asking if the family would like the sound of Lillia’s last heartbeats set to music. They said yes, and requested Over the Rainbow.

"It was one of the first songs David and Jessica sang to Lillia when she was born," he said of Lillia’s parents. "And it was one of the last things David was able to do before she died, is sing it to her again, and then she was taken away for organ donor surgery."

• • •

Beats of Love was started by a handful of nurses in Tampa General’s neonatal intensive care unit who had heard of a similar program at Cincinnati Children’s Hospital. Tampa General purchased a special stethoscope with help and funding from Hard Rock, which operates a hotel and casino in Tampa and continues to donate to the program.

RELATED: Bayshore race claims two lives: child dies day after mother’s death

The instrument allows nurses to record a heartbeat while they listen to it during a routine exam.

Other local hospitals try to accommodate families in similar ways.

Johns Hopkins All Children’s Hospital in St. Petersburg runs a comparable program with its music therapists.

Largo Medical Center give family members a paper strip showing a loved one’s heart rhythm, and lets them listen through a stethoscope before the patient is taken off life support.

At Brandon Regional Hospital, the names of babies who die during childbirth or are stillborn are printed on special ties that are mounted on pillars in a memorial garden outside The Women’s Center.

"There are limits to what we as health care providers can offer when it comes to saving critically ill children, which leaves us feeling powerless," Balakrishnan said.

The program at Tampa General was a way to help families in a lasting way, she said.

Amy Hunt, a nurse manager in the neonatal unit, remembered a pregnant mother who was diagnosed with cancer, and who died shortly after giving birth at the hospital. Her baby spent time recovering in the unit while she stayed in the hospital for cancer care.

The mother passed away, but the Beats of Love team was able to record her heartbeat for her husband and children. The baby is now nine months old and healthy.

Since 2017, members of the team have recorded 44 heartbeats. The funding from Hard Rock has helped them expand the program to offer heartbeat recordings to patients who aren’t in critical care, Hunt said.

"Just to have something physical after a loss or a trying time seems to make such a difference," she said.

But the experience can be emotional for the staff, too. For Goodwin, a new father who works in the integrated arts in medicine program at Tampa General, the Raubenolt family’s song was an especially tough one. His wife, Danielle, who is also a musician and works at the hospital, sang Over the Rainbow to go with the recording of Lillia’s heartbeat.

"You don’t always hear back from the families after we give them the file, but most people are extremely grateful," Goodwin said. "We never say no to anyone who wants it. We’re just happy to offer this kind of service."

• • •

After clicking play, the listener hears Lillia’s irregular beat — soft at first, then growing a little louder over time. Soon the gentle strumming of Goodwin’s acoustic guitar eases in, followed by Danielle singing the familiar lyrics of the ballad made famous in the Wizard of Oz. The heartbeat remains strong, but faint in the background, carrying the cadence of the music.

ALSO READ: Cameras offer peace of mind to parents of babies in intensive care

The recording made for a powerful moment during an Aug. 20 vigil, where neighbors and family friends gathered along Bayshore Boulevard to commemorate what would have been Lillia’s second birthday. Attendees drew rainbows in chalk on the sidewalk to let the Raubenolt family know that Tampa’s thoughts were still with them. The Raubenolts live in Ohio and have since returned home. But Reisinger lives in Tampa, just a few blocks from where his niece was killed.

In the weeks that have passed since then, Reisinger has seen rainbows everywhere. His daughter painted a ceiling tile in the intensive care unit at Tampa General, with rainbows as a way to honor Lillia.

"There have been many, many rainbows since," he said. "That song is so special to our family."

But some family members still cannot bear to listen to the version with Lillia’s heartbeat. Including her father.

"We hope over time, it will honor her and her mom — for the life and sight they gave to others," Reisinger said. "And hopefully over time it will bring comfort to David, and let Lillia be his hero."

Contact Justine Griffin at [email protected] or (727) 893-8467. Follow @SunBizGriffin.

     
 
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