Central Texas woman searches for mom’s belongings after losing her to COVID-19: ‘my best friend’

Investigations

ROUND ROCK, Texas (KXAN) — Michelle Lee Carter kept hundreds of memories in photo albums for her daughters.

“Every moment from, like, the nineties in my childhood is documented, and I’m so thankful for that,” Lauren Mayes said. “I mean, my mom was my best friend.”

Tears welled up in her eyes as she talked about how difficult the last 10 months have been — trying to hang on to these memories.

Carter lost her week-long battle with coronavirus on April 7. When she died in the ICU at a Round Rock hospital, Mayes said her family was shocked. They were told Carter was one of the first COVID-19 patients there.

Mayes, who is from Round Rock, emphasized her family was thankful for the efforts of the health care workers at Baylor Scott & White Medical Center. When the family didn’t immediately receive their mother’s phone, wallet, keys and other personal items they weren’t too surprised. She knew the healthcare workers there were busy, and her family was focused on arrangements for their mother.

Between the chaos of the rising number of hospitalizations and the grief of losing their mom, these material things just weren’t top of mind.

“Honestly, I spent like six months just not able to take action on anything and having people help with the funeral home arrangements and things like that… because the shock doesn’t wear off,” she said. “It’s still with me — it will always be with me.”

As time went on, Mayes found herself trying to process her grief in different ways: COVID-19 support groups or planning a funeral service for her mom to hold once the majority of people are vaccinated. She also started looking for pieces of her mother’s memory to hang on to, and she couldn’t shake the idea that unlocking Carter’s phone would be the key to a trove of memories and pictures beyond the family albums.

“I’m a ‘fix-it’ type of person,” she said. “I know a lot of aspects of what happened can’t be fixed, but I feel like these are physical things, and maybe there’s a chance I can, if I try.”

Mayes told KXAN she started off by calling hospital security and was eventually directed to the Patient Relations division. She said an investigation was opened, but eventually she was told the items were placed in a car to be transported to the funeral home with Carter’s body. She also provided KXAN investigators with documentation showing a log of personal items from the day Carter was admitted to the hospital, which a note indicated they were to “remain with patient.”

However, Mayes said the funeral home showed no documentation of ever receiving the items — leaving her to worry, “Were the items lost in transit?”

KXAN Investigators requested the policies and procedures on personal items throughout the pandemic from Baylor Scott & White — and two other large area hospital systems. None of them were able to provide any answers before this report aired.

A spokesperson for Baylor Scott & White said they could not comment on Carter’s individual case, but said in a statement, “There is nothing more important to us than the well-being of our patients and staff and the broader health of our communities. We extend heartfelt condolences to any family who loses a loved one, especially during this uncertain time. When it comes to personal belongings, our employees take great care in keeping items with the patient or in a safe place. Patients and family members are always encouraged to contact our patient relations team with any concerns, comments or questions, and we will diligently work to resolve them.

A group called the Collaborative Healthcare Patient Safety Organization published a report in 2016, noting hearing aids, dentures, eyeglasses, wallets and cell phones as some of the most commonly lost or misplaced items during a patient’s hospital stay. They said patients are usually responsible for their belongings, but recommended healthcare systems ‘ask patients’ family members to hold onto their loved ones belongings’ during the stay to avoid any lost items.

After the pandemic changed the rules — often prohibiting or restricting who is allowed to visit hospital patients and when, Mayes wonders how many other families are searching for their lost memories, too.

“I know I’m just like one small person,” she said. “We can’t go to the hospital to the front desk and be like, ‘This is the situation.’ It’s hard to get anybody on the phone.”

Mayes made it clear — she doesn’t blame the hospital. She knows with such a surge of cases and increasing pressure on the healthcare system, it must be a lot to keep track of belongings left behind. In fact, Patient Relations told Mayes they attempted to call her family once, but she remains certain they didn’t receive that call or any message about the belongings.

IN-DEPTH: Lost and Not Found

The hospitals reporting to Collaborative Healthcare Patient Safety Organization database were located in California for the most part, but a few Texas hospitals were included. None of them were in Central Texas.

The report, published pre-pandemic, noted that many lost items at the reporting hospitals were “high value,” such as cash, mobile phones, tablets and jewelry.

Hearing aids and dentures are around $2,000. The time to have these items replaced can be weeks,” the report read.

They offered several guidelines for hospitals and other providers on keeping track of patients’ belongings, including:

  • Have patients label all their electronic devices, clothes, and accessories
  • Review the patients’ inventory list and share it with the patient to make sure it is accurate
  • Ask patients’ family members to hold onto their loved ones’ belongings or remind patients leave their valuables at home during any pre-op visits.
  • Have compartments for each item
    • Glasses, dentures, and hearing aids should be placed in their own labeled, individual cases and not wrapped up in a paper towel
  • A patient can hang a sturdy bag on the footboard or headboard to contain their belongings

KXAN will update this article with more information from the Central Texas hospital systems on their policies as those details become available.

Copyright 2021 Nexstar Inc. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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