Her dying wish evoked a healing sunrise

Sister’s promise, ICU nurse’s compassion create extraordinary moment for dying cancer patient
December 9th, 2019
Family and a nurse reunite at the location outside the hospital where Jeannette Rivera died, avoiding a death in the ICU..
Jeannette Rivera’s family reunites with nurse Lauren Carlson at the location outside UCHealth Poudre Valley Hospital where Rivera was brought to die at sunrise. From left are Jeannette Rivera’s niece, Maxine Cofino; sister, Arlene Rivera; ICU nurse, Carlson; mother, Aurelia Zayas; and brother-in-law Roberto Gomez. Photos by Joel Blocker, for UCHealth.

Jeannette Rivera wanted out. But she couldn’t speak.

She was 58, facing death in the ICU at UCHealth Poudre Valley Hospital. Her sister, Arlene Rivera, stood at her bedside. Jeannette, while breathing through a tube, grabbed her sister’s face, moving it to communicate “yes” and “no.”

“She didn’t want to die in the hospital,” Arlene said. “I promised her, ‘You’re not going to die in the hospital. You’re not going to die in here.’”

It was June. Less than six months earlier, Jeannette was working as a travel agent in Puerto Rico, having just returned from a trip to Europe. She went to a doctor about a pain in her neck that had become intolerable. The diagnosis was cancer. It spread through her body and damaged multiple cervical vertebrae.

Jeannette moved to northern Colorado, where Arlene lives, to receive care. The tumor in her neck wasn’t responding to treatment, and by early June, the decision was made for her to be taken off life support.

Jeannette remained intubated as family members flew in from Texas and Puerto Rico. At about 4 a.m. June 11, Arlene, intent on keeping her promise – even if it meant carrying her sister outdoors – made an unusual request to ICU nurse Lauren Carlson.

“I said, ‘I don’t care where you take her, just that she can get outside,’” Arlene said.

Woman holds up photo of her sister, who didn't want to die in the ICU and was instead taken out of the hospital to witness one last sunrise.
Arlene Rivera holds a photo of her sister, Jeannette Rivera.

Less than an hour later, Carlson confirmed a plan and a place. Arlene returned to her sister’s bedside.

“I looked at (Jeannette) and told her, ‘You’re going to see the sun rise. You’re out of here,’” Arlene said.

Carlson and her colleagues prepared the hospital bed, connecting all the medical equipment to batteries. They proceeded with five of her family members down the hallways, through sets of double doors to the open air.

“People were rushing with the bed. It was a sight for all the people that were looking on, ‘Where are they going?’” said Aurelia Zayas, Jeannette’s mother.

Staff brought chairs and blankets for the family. It was a clear, chilly spring morning in a brick-paved area just east of the emergency department where, at 5:29 a.m., the sun rose.

“I looked at my sister… ‘You’re going to have a little difficulty breathing, and you’re going home,’” Arlene said. “I told her to look at the sky and that she was going to heaven.”

She spoke the names of their relatives who had died. She coached her older sister, her only sister.

“She looked at me like, ‘I’m not going to do this.’ I said, ‘You need to let this life go.’”

Nurse and sister stand outside of the hospital
UCHealth nurse Lauren Carlson, left, and Arlene Rivera stand outside Poudre Valley Hospital in December 2019.

‘We all have peace’

Arlene and Zayas stood on either side of the hospital bed, holding Jeannette’s hands. Along with the family members, a chaplain, a respiratory therapist and Carlson were there when the breathing tube was removed.

“My sister looked very calm. She took her last breath looking at me,” Arlene said. “Everybody was crying. It was pure compassion and empathy of a beautiful moment that we all shared.”

She said the team helped her sister die with dignity, without suffering in her last moments. She also said that although her sister died, the people working at the ICU are “still healers.” They helped her family heal.

“I have peace,” she said. “We all have peace.”

Nurse and patient's sister stand outside of hospital where patient didn't want to die in the ICU
Nurse Lauren Carlson stands with Arlene Rivera outside UCHealth Poudre Valley Hospital.

After enduring the shock of seeing their beloved sister, aunt, daughter go from a normal life to dying in the ICU in less than three months, the family members said experiencing that sunrise made a world of difference.

“It was a relief,” said Maxine Cofino, Jeannette’s niece. “It was something else – being able to look at the blue sky. Everything was flowering.”

Arlene said it makes a big difference when a health professional exhibits the kind of empathy and courage her family received from Carlson, taking action even when it doesn’t fit within the normal expectations of a hospital setting.

“What we all experienced there is special,” Arlene said, adding that it was “a bonding experience that we’re going to remember for the rest of our lives.”

“We have to say thank you to the hospital to allow us to complete my sister’s wishes,” she said. “She went home the way she wanted, and we all felt it.”

Family, nurse reunite

In December, Carlson and Jeannette’s family – Arlene, Zayas, Cofino and brother-in-law Roberto Gomez – met at the hospital to watch another sunrise from the same outdoor location.

Nurse walks patient's family members down a hospital corridor.
From left, Roberto Gomez, nurse Lauren Carlson, Arlene Rivera, Aurelia Zargas and Maxine Cofino walk down a hallway at UCHealth Poudre Valley Hospital, on their way outside.

It was colder, and the flowers were long gone. But the sky was clear and blue.

“Well Jinny, we’re here for you,” Arlene said. “We did it. We got you where you needed to be.”

She turned to Carlson and said, “I appreciate you, and I will never forget you.”

The family had taken Jeannette’s ashes back to Puerto Rico. They were released into the ocean at sunset, at an area where the sisters used to spend time together.

Arlene said that two people received Jeannette’s corneas, because she was a donor.

Jeannette was born in New York. She moved to Puerto Rico when she was six. She married a salsa singer, and he died six weeks after she died.

Cofino said she remembers her aunt as a “firecracker — once you got her started, she was going.”

Patient's sister holds photo of patient while speaking with nurse in hospital
Nurse Lauren Carlson, left, speaks with Arlene Rivera, who is holding a picture of her sister, Jeannette Rivera.

Zayas said she was the type who wouldn’t hesitate to ask for the manager if something wasn’t right. She said Jeannette stayed at her condominium when Hurricane Maria devastated the island, and wrecked her business, in 2017. The family helped set Jeannette up with an apartment in Fort Collins, but she never got to see it.

Carlson said the family “did an incredible job” as advocates for Jeannette when she was a patient. “Her family loved her something fierce.”

On the moment of the sunrise in June, Carlson said, “It spoke to my heart. We could all feel it.”

Before the family left the hospital, Arlene gave Carlson a big hug. She said never to be a stranger if they meet later on. “You see, you’re part of the family now.”

Patient's sister hugs her nurse inside the hospital.
Arlene Rivera, left, hugs nurse Lauren Carlson at UCHealth Poudre Valley Hospital.

About the author

Robert Allen loves meeting new people and learning their stories, and he's continually inspired by the patients, staff and providers he meets at UCHealth.

A journalist for 12 years, he joined UCHealth after reporting and editing at the Detroit Free Press. He is the author of Fading Ads of Detroit, a book exploring connections between classic Detroit brands — from Carhartt to Mac-O-Lac Paints to the Detroit Tigers — found on ghost signs and the personal histories of Detroit residents. He previously reported for the Fort Collins Coloradoan, Summit Daily News and Montrose Daily Press.

His outdoor adventures include scrambling summits, hunting powder stashes via snowboard and taking a three-week winter rafting trip down the Grand Canyon. The Oklahoma State University graduate lives in Fort Collins with his wife, Rachel, and their obstinate pug, Darla.