January 18, 2023

Heersink student starts “Compassion Closet” at UAB to ensure all patients leave in fresh clothing

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AdobeStock 240748898 LRA UAB Heersink School of Medicine student is launching a new program to meet a specific need faced by emergency department patients, particularly trauma patients.

Nick Hakes is a first-year medical student with a passion for caring for patients in their moment of need. During his time shadowing in the emergency department, he’s seen that the standard process for treating trauma patients includes having their clothes removed, often cut off, to allow for first responders or physicians to quickly examine their injuries. Emergency patients may have had their clothes damaged or soiled to due to a health event. Unless these patients have friends or family able to bring them clean clothes, they leave the hospital in thin paper scrubs.

As a medical student, Hakes has sometimes been the one tasked with cutting a patient’s clothes off.

“There have been many times when I silently apologize as I cut off expensive, meaningful, or hard to replace clothing,” Hakes said.

The solution that Hakes put into motion? A new program called Compassion Closet, with a mission to “discharge with dignity,” exemplifying UAB Medicine's mission of providing patient-centered care.

“Many trauma and emergency department patients are disproportionately affected by social inequalities,” Hakes said. "By advocating for the underserved with action, we can discharge every patient with dignity."

The Compassion Closet will be run out of UAB’s Emergency Department and will ensure patients whose clothes have been damaged due to trauma or emergency treatment are discharged from the hospital in clean and weather-appropriate clothing. The closet will feature new clothing and shoes provided by community donations.

Currently, social workers with the emergency department have a few bins with clothing they have donated themselves. The Compassion Closet will build on their generosity for patients by providing more space and organization for donations and implementing a check-out process complete with inventory levels.

nick_hakesNick Hakes

“The Compassion Closet is needed to help the providers of the University Emergency Department better provide for the basic needs of our patients,” said Todd Peterson, M.D., Department of Emergency Medicine physician and Associate Dean for Students at the Heersink School of Medicine. “Many of our patients do not have access to clean, adequate clothing to stay warm in the winter months. The Compassion Closet aims to provide these patients with replacement clothing at the time of their discharge from the Emergency Department."

Jeffrey Kerby, M.D., Ph.D., FACS, director of the Division of Trauma and Acute Care Surgery, says his division is proud to sponsor the new initiative through the funding for the donation bins and closet shelving. He encourages the UAB and local community to rally around the cause and donate new clothing items.

“Many of our trauma patients have their clothing damaged during the course of their injury or care delivery process,” Kerby said. “Life is different in many challenging ways after a traumatic accident or injury, but ensuring our patients have new, clean clothes when they leave the hospital will allow them one less thing to worry about as they begin their road to recovery.”

Hakes, who started at UAB in the fall 2022 semester, is launching Compassion Closet with a team of other medical students: Luke Frost, Bria Gamble, Whitt Harrelson, Gracie Meyer, Anna Musulman, and Jordan Wright. They gained insight from physicians, nurses, social workers, administrators, janitors, and – most importantly – patients.

The team got buy-in from stakeholders throughout the Heersink School of Medicine, the Department of Emergency Medicine, the Division of Trauma and Acute Care Surgery, Infection Prevention and Control, and Volunteer Services, who Hakes all said “jumped at the opportunity” to provide even better care for UAB patients.

“I am blessed to be at an institution where even a lowly medical student can recognize a need, propose a solution, and find enthusiastic support to make an impact,” Hakes said.

UAB Emergency Department nurse, Dani Murphy, R.N., said the Compassion Closet is a resource that’s for addressing more than just a patient’s medical needs.

“Our level of care goes beyond providing medical services,” Murphy said. “As nurses, this closet provides us with the ability to connect with our patients one step further.”

Hakes took inspiration for the Compassion Closet not only from the patients he’s helped care for at UAB, but also from personal experience. He had a hospital stay in the past, and with no family in the area to bring him a fresh set of clothes, he was discharged in the thin paper scrubs, cold and “nearly naked.”

“Trauma can affect anyone, young or old, vigorous or frail, privileged or disenfranchised,” Hakes said. “No matter the circumstances, every patient deserves to be discharged with dignity.”>

The Compassion Closet is now seeking donations of new, clean clothing items including: socks, underwear, bras, belts, winter hats, gloves, jackets, sweatshirts, shirts, pants, shorts, and shoes of all sizes. Dark-colored clothing is preferred.

Three donation bins will be placed across UAB:

  • Volunteer Services: Spain Wallace, Floor 1
  • UAB Hospital information desk: North Pavilion, Floor 2, across from the Starbucks
  • Medical Student Services: Volker Hall, Floor 1, Suite 102

The Compassion Closet is a joint effort of UAB Medicine and The UAB Heersink School of Medicine, supporting UAB’s commitment to collaboration to provide the best medical care. For questions, contact Nick Hakes at nhakes@uab.edu.

This story was written with reporting contributed by Heersink School of Medicine student Anna Musulman.