Patient advocate knows first-hand about grief

When she lost her husband to a horrific car-train accident, Christine Mulry Clausman turned her focus to support anxious patients and families waiting in the emergency room.

By IU Health Senior Journalist T.J. Banes,

It’s an example of how everything can change in seconds. It was a steamy night in July when Christine Mulry Clausman and her daughter Meghan were out shopping for a birthday present for Christine’s husband Mike.

Mike Mulry and his son Patrick were taking a joy ride in Mike’s convertible – the top down and the warm summer breeze blowing on their faces.

Christine Mulry Clausman met her husband when she was 16. She was working at a movie theater in Rhode Island. Born in Ohio, she moved to Indiana and then Rhode Island when her father’s job was transferred. After high school Mike followed her back to Indiana where they both graduated from Ball State University. They were married in 1981 and had been married 17 years when Christine’s life was forever changed.

“My biggest fear in life was to lose my husband or one of my children,” she wrote in a reflective article. On July 24, 1999 as she was preparing for a family vacation and a celebration for her husband’s birthday, that fear became reality.

Mike Mulry was buried on his 41st birthday.

As his convertible approached an unmarked railroad crossing, Mike Mulry slammed on the brakes. The crossing sign and stop sign were hidden by trees. There were no warning lights so he could not see the tracks until he reached the crest of a hill. The car stopped but jolted onto the railroad tracks and into the path of an oncoming train. When Mulry realized the car had stalled and he couldn’t restart it, he threw himself on top of his son – saving Patrick’s life. The impact pushed the car into a ditch.

When Christine received the phone call all she knew was that Mike was being airlifted to one hospital and her son to another hospital. She didn’t even know a train had hit them. In the end they both ended up at the same hospital and Christine waited and waited, and waited some more – for answers. Her husband was taken into surgery. She never had a chance to see him, to tell him she was there for him, to hold his hand, give him a kiss or tell him he was loved. Mike Mulry passed four hours after entering the emergency room.

Patrick was 12 at the time. Meghan was eight. Christine was a widow with two young children.

Years went by, Christine worked in banking – where she became friends with a woman who introduced her to the man who would become her future husband. Warren Clausman was the brother of that long-time friend and 14 years ago Christine Mulry became “Christine Mulry Clausman.” Her son is now 33 and he recently walked his sister down the aisle when she was married at the age of 28.

The trauma of her loss, continued to haunt Christine. She felt she needed to do something to help others learn from her loss. She felt there needed to be changes in the hospital culture – giving family members better care during an emergency and access to their loved ones at all costs.

“I thought I was handling the whole grief thing because I was going to work, decorating for Christmas, and going to counseling. I had my kids in counseling too and one of the counselors asked the kids if they ‘could have anything back what would it be,’” said Christine. She was sure their answer would be “my dad.”

Instead, the kids said they wanted their mom back. It was like they lost both of their parents on the same day. Christine knew she needed to make a change.

“I was functioning pretty well but I was a shell of a person. I didn’t know anyone my age that was a widow. I didn’t know what it was like to be that person at the age of 40,” said Christine.

That was a pivotal point in her life. First she began volunteering at the hospital then she became a patient transporter. Gradually she carved out a position that is now known as “patient experience liaison.” Last year she completed the Fairbanks Ethics Fellowship with a focus on care for caregivers and families.

“Healthcare providers are so overworked and sometimes under appreciated and it made me realize not only do I want the caregivers to be more compassionate but I want to be sure we do a better job taking care of our caregivers,” said Christine.

In the past decade her role with IU Health West has evolved along with the changes in the hospital culture. When she first started in her role she was at the bedside of patients along with their families. Now chaplains and social workers are in that role. As a patient advocate, she works 24 hours a week rounding the emergency room waiting area consoling families and loved ones. She offers blankets, cups of coffee, heat packs and ice packs. Most of all she listens. Her goal is to make sure every patient and guest is heard.

“Over the years I know I have made many people’s worst day of their life better. When I connect with a family and patient and calm their fears or be there with them during a horrible situation, I know my purpose,” said Christine. “It makes me feel like Mike didn’t die in vain.”