‘She won’t let go of him’: Vanderbilt helps hospitalized wife comfort dying husband

When the couple’s health took a turn, the hospital made sure they were together when they needed it most.
The two stayed together until the very end.
Published: Sep. 19, 2023 at 10:26 AM CDT
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NASHVILLE, Tenn. (WSMV) – A longtime married couple recently found themselves apart after a pair of unrelated medical emergencies, according to Vanderbilt University Medical Center. It’s something that has happened seldomly during the couple’s nearly seven decades together.

Tommy and Virginia Stevens, both 91, went through their lives and 69 years of marriage within arm’s length, hand in hand, Vanderbilt said in a news feature about the couple. When the couple’s health took a turn, the hospital made sure they were able to be together when they needed it most.

“Tommy … has Alzheimer’s disease. He had recently been transferred into a memory care unit at the assisted living facility where the couple lived, and they were still able to spend time together. Then, when he began having labored breathing and dangerously low blood pressure, he was transported to VUMC,” Vanderbilt said in the feature. “His diagnosis was aspiration pneumonia and sepsis. When illness overwhelmed his body to the point treatment was no longer effective, he was moved to the Medical Center’s Palliative Care Unit.”

Vanderbilt said the same morning Tommy was taken to VUMC, Virginia fell. She suffered six broken ribs, a spinal fracture, and a hip injury, which led to her admission into VUMC’s trauma unit. The family, visiting between two different units, were pleasantly surprised when the Vanderbilt made arrangements so the lovebirds were able to be roomed side-by-side.

Virginia and Tommy Stevens, both 91, were married for 69 years.
Virginia and Tommy Stevens, both 91, were married for 69 years.(Vanderbilt University Medical Center)

Virginia was moved into a room near Tommy’s in the Palliative Care Unit, and her hospital bed was scooted against his so she could comfort him as his health continued to get worse, Vanderbilt said.

“He was awake when she came in,” their daughter Karen Kreager told Vanderbilt. “His eyes were open. He wasn’t communicating a lot — just in small whispers. But he knew that she was there and that she was going to be right beside him. They haven’t stopped holding hands the whole time. She won’t let go of him.”

“It reminds me of why we do this work,” Mohana Karlekar, MD, medical director of VUMC’s adult Palliative Care Program said in the feature. “We take care of people — husbands, wives, mothers, fathers — not patients. We brought this family together during one of their most difficult times with little effort on our part. It involved a call, seeing an extra patient that day and some conversations.”

Vanderbilt said the couple has founded several successful transportation-related businesses together, raised two children, and have grandchildren and one great-grandchild.

“From the time we brought Mrs. Stevens over, she held her husband’s hand and fussed in a very loving way with him,” Karlekar said. “She was able to tell me Monday that she was at peace with what was going on, and she wanted to be there until the end.”

Tommy died Sept. 8, just a day before the couple’s 69th anniversary, and Virginia died Sept. 17.