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October 7, 2019

'It's a helpless feeling': Meet the nurse who calms anxious parents in Boston Children’s waiting room

Daily Briefing

    Editor's note: This popular story from the Daily Briefing's archives was republished on Mar. 31, 2020.

    At Boston Children's Hospital, surgical liaison Kathy Delaney, a nurse by training, serves as "the official emissary" between "the masked world of the" OR and the surgical waiting room, keeping anxious parents updated on the status of their children during their procedures, Eric Boodman reports for the Boston Globe.

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    The rise of surgical liaisons

    Boston Children's launched its surgical liaison program in 1963, Boodman reports. At the time, the surgical liaison's job wasn't well understood.

    Arlene Keeling, a nursing historian at the University of Virginia, explained that when surgical liaison programs started, the liaisons, "were called 'clipboard nurses.' It looked like they were walking around with a lab coat on and not getting their hands dirty."

    But despite the prejudice they faced, surgical liaisons served an important purpose when it came to communications between clinicians and parents, who were at times viewed as an "afterthought" and sometimes even a "nuisance" by providers, Boodman writes.  

    By the 1970s, more hospitals were launching their own surgical liaison programs and today, the role has become a staple in many hospitals, Boodman reports.

    A typical day for Boston Children's liaison

    In her role as surgical liaison, Delaney serves as a "translator and mediator" for the patients and their families who sit in the waiting room, worried about their children.

    This often means coordinating with surgeons across different ORs, performing surgeries that vary in severity. One day, there were 60 operations scheduled for Boston Children's 26 operating tables, and Delaney kept up with every one of them, Boodman reports.

    But along with routine procedures, there were also more serious surgeries. One patient, two-year-old Emma De Santos, had to have a growth removed from behind her left eye. The surgery was long and complex, and her parents were "panic[ked]" over the potential risks, Boodman writes.

    "It's just a helpless feeling," said Brian, DeSantos' father. "As parents, we're her protectors … and then you deal with something like this."

    But every 90 minutes, Delaney appeared with updates on their daughter's surgeries as well as snacks and coffee for the worried parents.

    Delaney's updates are a source of comfort even for more "banal" procedures, such as draining fluid from kids' inner ears and removing their tonsils, for the patients' parents, Boodman writes. One parent described the wait as the "longest hour of my life."

    When the parents first see Delaney in the waiting room they "dart upward," Boodman writes. "They try to be polite. But their eyes give away what they're really feeling: a mixture of hope and dread that the news she bears is about their child."

    In Emma's case, Delaney at one point had to tell her parents the surgical team was scanning her brain. "They may have to go in and do a little more," she said.

    Later that day, Delaney was able to deliver positive news: the surgery was successful.

    But until parents receive the good news, their "[e]yes implore Delaney, as if she personally has the power to bring kids home safe," Boodman writes (Boodman, Boston Globe, 9/27).

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