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COVID Nurse Gives Grief-Stricken Families Their Loved One's Final Heartbeat

MINNEAPOLIS (WCCO) -- For months, healthcare heroes have wondered what more they could do for the families of dying COVID-19 patients.

One nurse's priceless gift helps relatives forever keep lost loved ones just a heartbeat away.

To the families and nurses of COVID patients, it is a virus that can only be described as torturous. Nurse Laura Triplett worked at Bethesda Hospital in St. Paul, and is now at St. Joseph's Hospital.

"I had two days where I lost five patients," Triplett said.

Joan Johnson of South St. Paul met her beloved husband Larry online 20 years ago. She lost him to COVID in October.

"My love, he was humorous, fun to be around," Johnson said. "We traveled so much, I wish, you know, that's one of the things that breaks my heart is now I'll be traveling alone, but I will because he'd want me to."

There was no official goodbye. Amidst COVID, nurses are the ones at the patient's side for the last breath, and last beat of life.

"There's no families, it's, you are their family. Their family is on an iPad," Triplett said. "When you're in hospice they get to spend all that time with them and be with them. You don't get that with this, so that's the harder part."

So Triplett channeled her own grief into art.

Last Heartbeat Bottle
(credit: CBS)

"I thought it would be really sweet to send them their loved one's heartbeat before they passed away so they would have something to remember them by," Triplett said.

She started printing copies of her patient's last full heartbeats, rolling them into jars, stamping them with a symbolic shape, then sending the trinket and a card to the families she never met.

"Your heart isn't really love, but it is love, and so here's the heartbeat and part of their life that you get to keep with them," she said.

Because she never saw families receive the gift, she questioned the worth of her $1 gesture.

"When I told my girls about the heartbeat … they said that they thought that was super awesome because if it was me or my husband that had passed away that they would get a tattoo of that heartbeat like on them so they would carry it with them wherever they went," Triplett said. "So the kids really loved this. Hopefully other people are going to feel the same way, too."

For Larry Johnson's widow, Triplett's gift was priceless.

"For the first week I carried it around with me everywhere, and then I was afraid that I was going to lose it. So now it sits next to me on my bedroom nightstand," Johnson said.

Although Larry Johnson would never heal, Triplett was able to relieve his family of some pain.

"It's him, it's another piece of him that I can keep with me, along with all the memories I have," Johnson said.

Last Heartbeat Tattoos
(credit: CBS)

It turns out Triplett's kids were right about the worth of her gift. Johnson, as well as her husband's daughter and granddaughter, now have tattoos of his heartbeat.

"That was part of the hope, that you can carry it with you wherever you go," Triplett said.

She is starting a new assignment in cardiac care this week, but the COVID unit is carrying on her tradition with families.

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