George Morales had been to every doctor appointment, surgery, and cancer treatment that his wife, Rikki, had received. That is, until the 2020 coronavirus pandemic forced hospitals like the University of Utah and Huntsman Cancer Institute (HCI) to establish a zero-visitor policy.
"Not being there physically makes me feel like I’m not 100% supporting her," George says. "It’s hard when you go in with someone every time and all of a sudden you can’t. It’s rough for her too."
Rikki was first diagnosed with melanoma in 2010 after she had a birthmark removed. She had the cancer treated until there was no evidence of disease. For seven years, Rikki was in remission. But in April 2019, melanoma appeared again. It was the same spot.
"I went with her to most treatments," George says, "but unfortunately, I was unable to go to the last four because of COVID."
When patients finish their infusion treatment at HCI, they have a small ceremony by ringing a gong to celebrate. Normally, patients are able to bring family and friends.
"It was a big thing for me to see her ring the gong. She finished a whole year, thirteen sessions, and I was going to be there for that lucky thirteen," George says.
George called a few different nurses on the infusion team to try to get an exception to see Rikki ring the gong. He was eventually referred to Ryan Doering, manager of the infusion treatment center.
"I talked to my clinical nurse coordinator, Mary, and we came up with a surprise plan to do everything outside," Ryan says. "We decided to wait for her outside and ring the gong right there. Mary got a rolling table, put a nice drape over it, and brought the gong down." Along with the gong was a certificate and a blanket, which the infusion team gives to patients on their last chemo day.
After Rikki finished her treatment, she walked out the big glass doors and saw George standing there. "At first she said, ‘They didn’t let me hit the gong!’" George chuckled. Her eyes then moved to everyone else.
"And then she noticed everything and realized it was for her," George says. "We had the celebration and banged the gong right outside the front doors. It was so special."
"The no-visitor policy is one of the harder things for a manager," Ryan says, "because the patient is at the root of everything we do at HCI. Supporting our patients often means supporting their family."
George says, "I didn’t think it was going to happen, to be honest. I thought maybe they would come down and try to let me in, but I didn’t think they were going to go through all that. It made me realize there’s a lot of big hearts and a lot of people care. They made a memory we’ll never forget."