MANSFIELD — One Avita nurse showed Jeff Williams, a recovering diverticulitis patient, that sometimes the best medical care does not involve any prescriptions or procedures at all.
At the time of his youngest daughter Alice Williams’ graduation from Mount Vernon Nazarene University, Jeff was lying in a hospital bed recovering from his second surgery in three days.
One of Jeff’s nurses, David Kuzman, saw Jeff in despair and took it upon himself to throw a surprise party in the ICU waiting room so Jeff could experience the milestone with his family.
“I opened the door [to the waiting room] and there was my daughter in her cap and gown,” Jeff said.
“Incredible. It helped make everything simply easier for me to have the opportunity to see my daughter in her regalia with my wife and my son there as a complete surprise.”
Days earlier, Kuzman said he had no doubt that Jeff would be able to make it to the ceremony. But when the day arrived, and Jeff’s surgeon said he had to stay, Kuzman jumped into action and called Jeff’s wife to get a plan in motion.
“I don't have any kids, but I could empathize,” Kuzman said. “With it being his youngest daughter, and the last time he would get to see that, I can't imagine.
“I remember sitting at the nursing station and talking to one of the aides, and I was saying we need to do something for Jeff," he said. "Even if it's just something little, this man needs a-pick- me-up because not only is he in pain and getting this bad news, but now he's going to miss out on his daughter's graduation.”
For going above and beyond the standard level of care, Kuzman’s actions were recognized with The DAISY Award – part of the international DAISY Foundation which aims to recognize nurses for providing compassionate, skillful care.
In Kuzman’s case, the award is even more amazing considering that he technically isn’t eligible. As a traveling nurse, Kuzman said he is contracted by Avita, but is not a true staff member.
Kuzman was nominated for the award by Dr. Stephen Fisher, who performed both of Jeff’s surgeries. Fisher found out about the surprise Kuzman planned after-the-fact and told Chief Nursing Officer, Kathy Durflinger.
Durflinger said that Kuzman’s nursing manager did not even know about the surprise, but that all of the leadership was stunned when they learned about Kuzman’s actions.
“Dr. Fisher came to me and said, ‘Kathy, I've got to tell you about what one of your nurses did,’” Durflinger said. “There was no question we'd have to recognize him.
“When a physician nominates a nurse that is a big deal," she said. "You know, Dr. Fisher has been a surgeon for many years. He's been in healthcare, probably as many years as I have and he has seen it all. For him to see and to recognize this nurse that's big.”
When figuring out how to pull off the surprise, Kuzman remembered that Jeff had asked him to go to physical therapy earlier that day and knew that would be his cover story.
Right after lunch, Kuzman told Jeff that physical therapy could see him. Even while in significant pain, Jeff got out of bed and got ready to wheel his IV pole alongside him down the hallway to therapy.
As Jeff and Kuzman made their way out into the hallway, Kuzman had Jeff make a “detour” through the ICU waiting room where his family was ready to surprise him.
“As soon as [Jeff] looked and he saw who was in there waiting, first his face was in complete shock, and then it just lit up and everybody started crying,” Kuzman said.
“I have a very close knit family myself, and I can tell that [Jeff’s] family and him are exceptionally close as well, so I know how much this means…I felt the emotion right along with everybody," he said. "It was just such an honor to play a part in that.”
A hard reality to face, Alice said she was sad that her dad could not be at her graduation, but more for his sake than hers.
“I just was really excited to kind of have that day of celebration, not only to celebrate the hard work I put into school…but also to have that time to really just thank [my parents] and celebrate how much they have poured into me,” Alice said.
“I was really sad to hear that my dad was not able to make it," she said. "It's really hard for me to see him go through all that pain and the two surgeries, so I was sad that he wasn't able to be there, but I was also sad, because I knew he really, really wanted to be there.”
Alice graduated summa cum laude with an associates degree in business administration. Like her brother, Coulter, who graduated a year earlier with a degree in mechanical engineering, Alice graduated college 100% debt-free.
Going beyond the minimum GPA for summa cum laude, Alice graduated with a 3.99 GPA. All while commuting from home, Alice led a discipleship group on campus and paid for a portion of her own schooling.
With such a remarkable college career, Jeff said he was looking forward to the day to celebrate Alice.
“When you have children, there are events in their lives you don’t want to miss,” Jeff said. “She worked her tail off to graduate at the level which she did.”
“That commencement exercise, you know, it only lasts an hour, hour and a half…but it’s a momentous occasion, and as a parent it's an incredibly meaningful occasion in my child’s, young woman’s, life and I wanted to be there.”
Two weeks after Jeff was discharged, it was his turn to surprise Kuzman in a ceremony to receive The DAISY Award. Jeff, Alice and Avita staff members gathered to present Kuzman with the prestigious award.
Kuzman learned about The DAISY Award in school and said he made it something to strive for ever since. Kuzman said for such a meaningful organization to make an exception to recognize him was a huge honor.
Jeff explained that while the entire staff was compassionate and attentive in medically caring for him, the empathy Kuzman showed was truly astonishing and deserved to be recognized.
“David arranged everything and he really brought the sense of the human compassion side of nursing,” Jeff said. “Technically, he’s great, but he clearly loves people and he saw me hurting and this is not something medicine or a procedure could fix, this was a matter of a heart.”
Now almost two months after his last surgery, Jeff is back at work and has begun getting his strength back in the gym. Despite the pain he endured and the 18-24 month recovery that awaits, Jeff said the diverticulitis was a blessing.
Usually the one to take care of others, Jeff described his time in Avita, where he was forced to slow down and receive help from others, as a wakeup call and a time to reassess.
“The toughest thing about this, I’m a doer,” Jeff said. “I don’t usually sit still, but I had to be patient and be willing for people to give to me like David. It’s not been easy, but it’s been incredibly humbling.”
“The opportunity the Lord has given me to talk to people and instead of doing, physically doing, just being there and speaking with people and sharing the truth with people has made it all worthwhile, 100%.”
Durflinger explained that the type of compassion Kuzman showed cannot be taught. The technology, the clinical skills can all be learned — the innate sense of care and compassion, however, cannot.
Acts of care like that leave a lasting impact on everyone involved, Durflinger said, adding she is proud that Avita empowers their staff to go beyond medical care and treat patients like people rather than just an ailment to fix.
True to what Durflinger said, Alice said she will never forget the level of kindness and empathy Kuzman showed her and her family.
“I was floored that they just were so thoughtful, and not only their physical care but also mentally. What Avita did brought so much joy to my dad, and honestly, that was the therapy he needed,” Alice said.
“While we were there, I noticed that they really saw them as not just a patient, someone to not only give meds to, but to also encourage and just kind of love on and care for…it absolutely blew me away.”