A WakeMed Healthcare Hero: Susan Coulter

Every year the Triangle Business Journal (TBJ) recognizes individuals in our area who are true heroes within the health care profession.  This year, WakeMed was proud to employ three award winners (whom we have already highlighted on this blog) and one finalist, Susan Coulter, a WakeMed Cary Hospital volunteer.

Coulter is a retired speech pathologist who helped start Cary Hospital’s Silver Spoons program. Through Silver Spoons, volunteers are trained to support and assist patients who have trouble feeding themselves. Coulter herself trains program volunteers and works with patients every Wednesday. Her selfless dedication to helping and supporting others enriches our health system.    

We wanted to share with you Coulter’s award nomination so you could read first-hand what makes her so special.  Please keep reading to learn more.

Susan Coulter
Volunteer, Silver Spoons Program at WakeMed Cary Hospital
Susan Coulter drops into Room 238 at WakeMed Cary Hospital and asks the patient if she needs help with her breakfast. A legitimate question considering the patient is a month shy of turning 100 and has a range of medical issues, and considering that Coulter’s job as a Silver Spoons volunteer is to assist patients who need help eating.

The patient tells Coulter she can feed herself, but her eyes suggest she needs something. Coulter, adept at reading human emotions, takes a seat and strikes up a conversation. The patient’s failing memory prevents her from answering some questions, but that doesn’t matter. It’s apparent the patient appreciates the attention.

“I’ll come back and check on you,” Coulter assures her. “How long?” the patient eagerly wants to know.

“That’s technically our secondary function,” Coulter says of the Silver Spoons program, “to talk to the patient, to listen and make them feel a little better.”

The program arose from a concern Coulter, a retired speech pathologist, and a colleague shared three years ago.

“As speech pathologists, we would write recommendations on one-to-one feeding,” she says. Some patients had trouble swallowing, some had tracheotomies, and some didn’t have the motor skills to feed themselves.

“One day I was walking down the hall and stopped into a room where the patient was staring at her full breakfast tray,” Coulter recalls. “I asked if she wasn’t hungry, but the problem was that she had these tremors and couldn’t feed herself.”

That experience lead to discussions with the WakeMed Cary Hospital’s nurse manager, dietary director and volunteer coordinator. Those discussions were based, in part, by a similar program Coulter was familiar with at a Florida hospital. And those discussions led to establishing Silver Spoons in 2011, training volunteers to support patients who have trouble feeding themselves.

Coulter is quick to share credit for Silver Spoons’ creation. “The key is to have people who embrace the idea. The nurses and nurse aides, with all they have to do, simply didn’t have time to sit and feed patients. Sometimes it can take an hour with one patient.”

“We love it,” says Renada Richardson, an RN supervisor. “They’re very helpful. We have so many different patients; it’s great that [Silver Spoons] can spend the extra time with them.”

Coulter has trained 50 Silver Spoons volunteers since 2011. “I train them with the patient as the primary focus,” says Coulter. “We go over opening cartons of milk, cutting food, using silverware, heating coffee, sitting with a patient through the entire meal, making sure they’re upright when they eat.” Training is on-the-job. At any one time, Coulter has 10 to 12 Silver Spoon volunteers.

Coulter works the breakfast and lunch shifts every Wednesday. In 2013, she logged 149.75 volunteer hours through the program, and has a total of 488 hours since the program’s 2011 launch.

On a recent breakfast shift, Coulter is a whirl of activity for about an hour and a half. She ducks into 15 rooms, most at least twice. She introduces herself, asks the patient’s name, and then asks how they are doing. With a rehabilitation background, she doesn’t ask if the patients need help, but if they can feed themselves. Most can, though they may need help cutting their food.

“Well, good for you!” she says when a patient says she can feed herself. Later, she notes, “I’m all about independence.” And about helping others.

The program’s success at WakeMed Cary Hospital is attributed to Coulter’s dedication, according to Jackie Kennedy, manager of Volunteer Services. Its expansion to Raleigh Campus is being considered. 

“The sustainability of this program has been a direct effect of Susan’s ability to dedicate time to train volunteers who want to not only support and encourage our patients, but make mealtimes more enjoyable.”

Again, Coulter downplays her role in the innovative program. “Really,” she says, “what we do is just common sense.”

Coulter’s volunteer service goes beyond the walls of WakeMed. In college she worked as a big sister at a school for the deaf and blind. And 10 years ago she took a lead role in starting the Care and Share program at her church, St. Paul Episcopal in Cary.

“Susan was one of the beginning forces in in the program,” says Margie Best, a church member who worked with Coulter on the Care and Share program. “She’s very cognizant of what people need, and making sure they get it.”

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