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Quelling Anxiety, Fielding Complaints
No orange ice? Too noisy? No matter what the problem, our patient representatives can help.

D Johnson, center, and surgeon Ben Carson confer with a mother about her child’s operation.

In the waiting area near the general operating rooms, Dolores “D” Johnson is overseeing her realm. A few exhausted souls slump half asleep in blue vinyl chairs. Others stare ahead, clenching and unclenching their fists. Still others click industriously on laptops or flip nervously through magazines.

An elegant woman whose 80-year-old father is undergoing heart surgery slips on dark glasses and twists a tissue in her hand. Johnson makes a quick call to the OR, reaches a nurse and hands her the phone. The woman’s demeanor brightens during the conversation. “They made the first incision and Dad’s just fine,” she reports.

As a liaison between families and the operating room staff, Johnson will take care of about 100 family members in the GOR waiting room on this one day. She’ll consult a printout listing the 65 patients who will be operated on during her shift. Each time she hears from the OR, she’ll scribble a note and relate the news to a family member. If there’s bad news, she’ll find families a quiet, empty room and a social worker or clergy member.

Johnson is one of 12 patient representatives in the Department of Patient Relations at Hopkins Hospital. Nine, who serve as liaisons between families and medical staff, work in the GOR, medical and surgical ICUs, cardiology care unit and Weinberg waiting rooms. The other three work in Carnegie 100, handling the myriad complaints that emanate annually from the hospital, Outpatient Center and some satellite facilities.

Each complaint is carefully recorded and followed up by patient representatives committed to doing their very best for patients and their loved ones. The goal is to fix problems as quickly as possible. While some are resolved with a single phone call, others can take weeks. “People calm down after they talk to us,” says patient representative Michele Irving. “They are grateful and relieved to know that someone will listen and attend to their concerns.”

Carnegie 100
Most complaints wind up here in Carnegie 100. Michele Irving, left, and Sonja Garrison.


In a hospital with 900-plus beds, complaints are hardly unexpected. Some are serious, involving, say, compromised patient safety. Others are more routine (the food, the parking). Some are trivial, even outlandish:

An elderly patient ordered orange Italian ice for lunch; instead she got cherry. “Her husband was upset, so he came to vent,” says Sonja Garrison, manager of the patient representatives. “Because we’re Hopkins, the patient expected us to have her favorite flavor.” Garrison apologized and notified the director of nutrition. If the patient visits the hospital again, the kitchen will try to make sure it is stocked with orange ice.

A young male patient with multiple gunshot wounds to the chest and abdomen arrived in the ED. His life was hanging by a thread, but trauma surgeons saved him. While he was being operated on, his belongings were whisked away as evidence by the police. Once discharged, he, too, complained to Garrison. Where were his pants, boots and the $500 in cash he claimed had been stashed in his pockets? 

“Sir, it was the hospital’s priority to save your life. Unfortunately, we cannot reimburse you,” Garrison told him.

“Can’t you do both?” he asked.

On an October afternoon, on Halsted 7, patient representative Laverne Richardson is keeping track of the relatives and friends of 64 ICU patients. “I’m here for my families,” says Richardson. “Whatever they need, I’ll try to get it. If I can’t, I’ll find someone who can.”

Over the years, she’s been a part of some miracles.

 A 25-year-old neurology patient was in a coma. Her family constantly played spirituals in the room. After many days, the patient’s eyes fluttered open. “The family and I just jumped for joy,” says Richardson. That patient went on to rehab.

A woman in the medical ICU lay unconscious. Her daughter doubted whether her mother would pull through and considered canceling her wedding. She sought out Richardson. “Talk to your mother. Tell her about the wedding plans,” said Richardson. Months later, the mother celebrated at a beautiful wedding.

Johnson, too, has seen her fair share of emotional ups and downs. Hers has been a shoulder to cry on, a hand to hold. Sometimes, when asked, she’s prayed with families waiting out difficult surgeries.

After 25 years in the GOR, Johnson has a sixth sense for what families need. “It’s when you don’t know what’s going on in the OR that your mind runs wild and you think the worst,” she says. “If we have contact with staff, if we can tell the family everything is going well, we can go a long way toward relieving the anxiety families often experience when their loved ones are in the hospital.”

—Lydia Levis Bloch

JHM’s Patient Representatives

Johns Hopkins Bayview Medical Center
Patient representatives cover the Emergency Department, Medical Center and Care Center. Their goal: to address problems while providing excellent customer service. Because the hospital has a large Hispanic population, a team of eight Spanish interpreters is available 24/7.

Howard County General Hospital
In October, the hospital hired its first patient representative. According to Susan Franklin, director of patient safety, performance improvement and risk management, the new patient representative will be a liaison between patients and their families and the health care staff, resolving concerns and maintaining a database of complaints to be used for clinical performance improvements.



Johns Hopkins Medicine

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