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Carol Mannell remembers her younger sister, Kathy VanHulle, as a woman who loved meeting new people and having fun. Carol recalls how, despite being in the midst of receiving care for a serious illness when she was at Mayo Clinic, Kathy would take time to strike up conversations with people sitting next to her in waiting rooms. She would ask them to write messages in a journal she carried with her. Kathy and Carol would sing together in her hospital room.
Kathy even convinced members of her care team at Mayo Clinic to get up and dance.
“We had a lot of fun. Everywhere Kathy went at Mayo, we’d talk, laugh and get people to do the happy dance with her,” Carol says. “She had a big personality.”
After Kathy died in 2014, Carol wanted people to remember her sister’s uplifting and infectious spirit. So when staff contacted Carol to ask if she and other family members would like to participate in the annual service that honors those who have died at Mayo Clinic, Carol was enthusiastic about participating.
“Being acknowledged like that in a place like Mayo Clinic was wonderful,” she says. “Everyone was so personable and respectful. I won’t ever forget it.”
Kathy first traveled to Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota, from her home state of Missouri in September 2013 for treatment of acute myeloid leukemia. Carol, who served as Kathy’s primary caregiver, came along on that trip. Although the goal was for Kathy to have a bone marrow transplant, a suitable match could not be found at the time.
The trip would be one in a series they made to Rochester over the next year. As they returned home from that initial visit, Carol recalls how the sisters didn’t quite know what to make of Mayo Clinic.
“We said to each other, ‘What’s the deal with that place?’ Everyone was just so nice,” Carol says. “We didn’t even get in the building, and the greeters at the door were smiling and saying hi. We came in, and the information folks greeted us. People helped us get on the elevators. Kathy and I were kind of shocked. Everyone’s smiling. Everyone’s pleasant. And it’s all genuine. It’s so cool.”
The pair returned to Mayo Clinic for Kathy to receive further tests and treatment throughout 2014. As Carol looks back on that time, she recalls that their first impressions of the caring atmosphere at Mayo Clinic held true, particularly when it came to Kathy’s care team. Mark Litzow, M.D., a Mayo Clinic hematologist, was her primary physician.
“Dr. Litzow was patient and very kind,” says Carol. “He answered all our questions and kept in touch with us between appointments. He also communicated with Kathy’s hematologist in Kansas. The two of them worked together well. Dr. Litzow and everyone on his team were all amazing.”
Despite ongoing treatment, Kathy’s disease proved very challenging to control. She died on Sept. 28, 2014, at Mayo Clinic Hospital, Methodist Campus. After that, Carol went home to Missouri with no plans to return to Rochester.
But several months later, she received an invitation from Mayo Clinic to attend the Time of Remembrance. Held twice a year, the event honors all patients who have died at Mayo Clinic in the previous six months. The event includes a service of music and readings, as well as a recitation of all the patients’ names. Families are encouraged to bring photos and other mementos of their loved ones to display.
Carol was glad to have the opportunity. She and her family gathered many photos of Kathy to share, including some taken at Mayo Clinic. They also brought along Kathy’s journal, filled with encouraging messages, Bible verses and inspiring quotes from the people she met during her clinic visits and hospital stays. They displayed a laptop playing videos of Kathy along with family and friends, including a clip of Kathy and Dr. Litzow dancing together to the Pharrell Williams song “Happy.”
“It meant a lot to be there and to be able to talk about my sister,” says Carol. “I enjoyed hearing about other people’s loved ones, too. It was cathartic. It reminded me that everyone is special to someone.”
The family returned to Mayo Clinic one more time in the spring of 2016 to share in a gathering at the Convocation of Thanks. Hosted by the students of Mayo Medical School and Mayo School of Health Sciences, this annual service honors those who choose to donate their bodies to Mayo Clinic for anatomical study. Kathy made that choice after considering it for some time and talking it over with her family.
“We agreed that donating your body is such a wonderful thing,” says Carol. “The learning that happens is phenomenal, and there’s a chance that because of your gift someone might be able to find out something new about disease and medicine.”
As she reflects on the time she spent at Mayo Clinic with her sister, and the experiences she’s had here since then, Carol is grateful for the care her sister, and their entire family, received.
“Some people worry that when you go to Mayo Clinic, you’re just a number. I don’t know where that comes from. We never felt that way,” she says. “The convocation and remembrance services are events that embody what Mayo is all about. The people are sympathetic and concerned. It’s not about just treating a physical ailment. It’s about knowing and doing everything they can for the person as a whole. At Mayo Clinic, they really do care.”