Medical student launches effort to ensure all hospital patients leave in fresh clothing

Trauma patients rushed to a hospital often find that the clothes they were wearing do not survive their medical emergency. A UAB medical student is working to provide discharge with dignity.
Written by: Allie Hulcher
Media contact: Bob Shepard

inside compassion closetNick Hakes and a team of fellow medical students launched Compassion Closet after helping to treat trauma patients in the emergency department. It is not unusual for first responders or hospital staff to cut off the clothing of a trauma patient to quickly examine their injuries. For other patients, their clothes may be ruined by their medical emergency. A medical student at the University of Alabama at Birmingham Marnix E. Heersink School of Medicine is launching a new program to make sure all patients have something beyond borrowed thin paper hospital scrubs to wear home.  

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 has seen that the standard process for treating trauma patients includes having their clothes removed, often by cutting them off. Unless these patients have friends or family able to bring them clean clothes, they leave the hospital in 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 apologized 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 the UAB Medicine 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.

“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., director of the UAB 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 UAB and the 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.” 

Three donation bins will be placed across UAB:

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

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 all 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., says the Compassion Closet is a resource that is 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 has 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 cold with just the thin paper scrubs. 

“I felt nearly naked,” Hakes said. “Trauma can affect anyone, young or old, vigorous or frail, privileged or disenfranchised. 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 Starbucks
  • Medical Student Services: Volker Hall, Floor 1, Suite 102