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February 3, 2017

A Seattle Nurse Gives Back

By Nurse.org Staff Writer     

In light of the negative and sometimes angry political rhetoric occurring these days, it can be difficult to feel inspired by our fellow human beings. However, hundreds of unsung heroes in hospitals across the country have been quietly making huge differences in the lives of their patients in ways both large and small. We’re talking about nurses, of course, and one of those heroes is Barb Glenn, a BC-RN in the Psychiatric Unit at Harborview Medical Center, a Level 1 regional trauma center in Seattle, Washington.


Nurse Barb and Susan Nivert
Barb Glenn, RN (on right) with her spouse, Susan Nivert, Psychiatric ARNP

We first discovered Barb this past Christmas when we heard about an amazing tradition she had created for her patients and coworkers; we soon found out that Barb’s compassion extended far beyond the holiday season.


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Making Christmas Great Again

It all began when she met her partner in 1981. “I was working odd jobs, with a Bachelor’s Degree in Linguistics, when I met my spouse, Susan Nivert. She was a Psychiatric Nurse Practitioner and I decided that I wanted to be a Psych Nurse, too; so I worked on a psych unit during nursing school and graduated in 1986.”

“For the first 15 years of my career, I worked with children. Every Christmas, the hospital would put together gifts for the patients – marked for boys or girls – but the clothes would be the wrong size or a tomboy would get a doll. I realized that for very little expense and with a bit of thought and effort, I could select just the right thing for each child.”

That was in the early 90’s. The motto that has moved her to provide individualized presents for every one of her patients since then has been: If you give someone a generic present, they may feel grateful; but if you choose something just for them, they feel special.

“Psychiatric patients are more likely than most others to be homeless, low- income, and without family or other support. In fact, if you pass a mentally ill person acting oddly on the street, you’re likely to cross the street or look away.  Many of our patients have not gotten a present in years; why not make it right?”

“If you give someone a generic present, they may feel grateful; but if you choose something just for them, they feel special.”

A Year-Long Commitment

Giving individualized gifts for each patient seems easier said than done. How on earth does she manage to have specific presents for patients who are admitted and discharged on an unpredictable basis?

“I’m a scavenger; I shop sales all year round to find a good quality 3X polo shirt for $2.99, art supplies (at the start of the school year), socks, or jackets. When K Mart went out of business, I bought 20 pairs of very large jeans for $2 a pair; I gave out two pair this Christmas. All the clothes are new, still with the tag attached; whatever isn’t used is saved for the following year.”

Glenn has also built relationships with local sporting goods stores who give her shirts left over from races; she also has an ongoing relationship with a woman who owns a t-shirt business. Friends and coworkers contribute stocking stuffers, clothing, and once, a headscarf for a Muslim patient.


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A Group Effort

Each year during the week before Christmas, unit social workers alert Barb regarding which patients will be there for Christmas and what their resources are. On December 23rd, Barb and her wife Susan host a wrapping party for coworkers (and sometimes their spouses) at their home. They bring everything out from the bins where they’ve been stored the rest of the year in the basement; clothing (sorted by gender and size), craft and other leisure supplies, and fleece blankets are all piled around the living and dining room.

With years of experience under their belts, they now have present-wrapping down to a science.

“First, we make stockings by rolling up one sock and putting it into the toe of another (so they get a pair of socks) and filling it up with treats and hygiene supplies. Then unit staff – who know their patients the best – select and wrap gifts according to the needs, size, interests, and style of each individual. The neediest patients may get a jacket and sweatpants, while someone with a family may get a t-shirt, hat, and a deck of cards.”

Patients and Staff Reactions

“Night staff puts a stocking and wrapped gift at each person’s bedside during the night, so patients wake up and find them there,” says Barb. “It’s fun to see the patients smiling, and dressed in new, clean clothing on Christmas morning.”

And how do the patients react to their gifts?

“All the gifts are from ‘Santa’; the staff takes no credit. Once we chose a music box for an elderly lady and she asked, ‘How did Santa know I like music?’ Even though patients can see that not all gifts are of equal value, no one has ever complained; I think they know instinctively that some people have greater needs than others – and of course, Santa is fair.”

Glenn’s Christmas program has not only inspired her coworkers to participate, but some have even adopted the model for their own units.

“I started working at Harborview Medical Center in 2010 and have been organizing presents for the three psych units there since then,” Glenn commented. “This year, one of the units did their own gifts, so we picked up the Rehab Unit instead; all together, we assemble over 60 gifts and stockings each Christmas.”


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Spreading Joy Beyond the Hospital

The patients aren’t the only ones who benefit from this wonderful program. After Christmas is over, Barb takes any leftover stockings and wrapped gifts down to the freeway overpass a few blocks from Harborview to brighten the day of some of the homeless individuals gathered there.

Glenn remarks, “This has been a wonderful project for me for so many years; it has really enhanced my life.”

So the next time you’re feeling down about the state of the world, think about Nurse Barb. The difference she’s making for patients, colleagues, and everyone around her shows us that small acts of kindness can create limitless, positive reverberations.

And if you’re thinking about starting your own Christmas program, remember, there’s no better time than the present. 

Next Up: Nightingale Express: RN Launches Custom Gift Box Service For Nurses

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