Daughter, 13: These holding hands honor her mother

On what was one of the most difficult days of Skeeter “Dee” Durnil’s life, a team of caregivers embraced her family and honored her final wishes.

By T.J. Banes, IU Health senior journalist, tfender1@iuhealth.org

It’s been said that a mother holds her child’s hands for a while, but her heart forever. For Kaylee Durnil, 13, that image of her mother holding her hand lives on – even after her mother’s passing.

It was the end of August and Skeeter “Dee” Durnil was closing in on 50 days spent at IU Heath University Hospital. She was not recovering from a diagnosis of nonalcoholic steatohepatitis (NASH). She was being cared for in ICU for severe liver damage.

“She got very close to all the staff – the nurses and even the food service folks,” said her son Chris Durnil. So it was no surprise that when Dee made a final wish to go outside, her caregivers leaped into action.

“I took care of her every night for a month. When she said she wanted to go outside, I thought it might lift her spirits. I had seen her angry; I’d seen her scared and when she went outside, for one of the first times I saw her content. She was holding her daughter’s hand and smiling,” said Lisa Dunnivant, an ICU nurse. During Dee’s stay at University Hospital, Dunnivant watched Hallmark movies with her and listened while Dee talked about her family including sons Chris Durnil, 35, Jacob Durnil, 22, and daughters Caitlin Durnil, 26, and the youngest, Kaylee Durnil, 13.

Dunnivant had clocked out for the day when she got the call that Dee wanted to go outside. She returned to the unit and joined the family as they gathered around her hospital bed in a little outdoor enclosure.

“I love them so much. They’re like family to me,” said Dunnivant. “I’d do it all again in a heartbeat.”

That wasn’t the only thing that happened on that final day. As Dee held her youngest daughter’s hand for what would be one of the last times, IU Health Art Therapist Lisa Rainey offered to make a mold of the two hands.

“I work with many patients and families who are faced with a terminal illness and I want to be able to help those patients cope through the dying process. Often times I’ve worked with the patient for months before their disease progresses to a point where comfort measures and maximizing quality of life replace those treatments that were once curative. I pride myself on the individual relationships that are built with each patient,” said Rainey, who works with IU Health Simon Cancer Center’s CompleteLife Program. “Art therapy is a largely non-verbal form of psychotherapy and counseling; however patients are always invited to share their hopes, desires, and life stories. I’m honored to get to know each and every one of my patients. I make sure they know that I am never in a rush, am 100% present, and truly interested in learning their life story,” said Rainey.

On this day, the timing was critical.

A social worker contacted Rainey and CompleteLife Program & Cancer Resource Center Coordinator Lindsay Syswerda in the morning with the news that Dee was transitioning to comfort care. If there would be a hand mold made it needed to be immediately.

“When we arrived to do the hand mold, Dee was sitting up, smiling, and talking with her family members. I had not seen her that awake, alert and engaged in quite some time,” said Rainey. Close by was Dee’s youngest daughter, holding back tears knowing that her mother’s life was coming to an end.

“Mother and daughter locked hands and then placed them in the casting alginate. They held hands for about five minutes while the alginate cured, and created the impression that I would pour plaster into to create the final piece of artwork,” said Rainey, who lost her mother when she was ten.

“I wish that I had a cast of her hand to touch and hold when I think of her or want to communicate with her. I’m so happy to be able to provide this creative intervention to those terminal patients who have young children,” said Rainey.

Dee passed that evening and the mold was displayed at her funeral as a reminder of her love for her children. The reminder lives on for her youngest daughter, Kaylee Durmil.

The teen, a student at St. Thomas Aquinas School, likes social studies, language arts and robotics. She hopes to one day become a criminal psychologist for a Behavioral Analysis Unit of the FBI. Her mom was a big influence on that decision – they spent hours watching crime shows together and trying to predict the plots.

Now the hand she once held for more than a decade is a forever memory – a symbol of her mother’s love that will remain in her heart forever.

“It sits on my desk in my room,” said Kaylee. “Seeing it every day reminds me of the Sally Hanson red nail polish my mom wore on that day.”