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  • Founders Society Square

    Newport Hospital Foundation
    11 Friendship Street
    Newport, RI 02840

    For more information, please contact the Newport Hospital Foundation office, at 
    401-845-1617 or email Lianne Pinheiro at

  • Visionary-Family Assistants

  • Family Assistants Add Comfort to Emergency Care

    A man pauses just inside the entrance of Newport Hospital's emergency department. His wife was just brought in by ambulance with chest pains and was whisked into the ED for immediate evaluation. He's not sure where he's supposed to go-what he's supposed to do next. All of a sudden, a woman appears at his side, introduces herself as Deborah Walker, and gently guides him to a chair in the waiting room. Here, Deborah explains what is happening to his wife, when he'll be able to go inside to see her, and helps him navigate the inevitable paperwork that accompanies admittance to the emergency department.

    Deborah is a "Family Assistant" at Newport Hospital and for the patients and families she helps, she is an absolute lifesaver. Though not a doctor or a nurse, she and fellow family assistant Deborah Milligan (who goes by her middle name, Lace) have been affectionately dubbed "Cagney and Lacey" by the rest of the ED staff for their ability to provide "backup" in almost any situation.

    "It's all about doing what it takes to make the patient happy," Deborah says. That might mean babysitting a child while his mother receives a CT scan, soothing a distressed wife whose husband just had a stroke, or offering a blanket and a listening ear to a patient needing warmth and comfort. Lisa Lima-Tessier, director of the emergency department, calls the Family Assistant program "The Caring Concierge." Newport Hospital is one of very few hospitals in the country to offer this extra special service. The two part-time Family Assistant positions have been funded by Newport Hospital's longtime supporters Gloria Nagy and Richard Saul Wurman since 2009.

    Patients are grateful for the extra caring hands and soothing words of the Family Assistants. Recently, a couple came to the ED, fearing the husband was having a stroke. He was calm but his wife was terrified. And the more agitated she became, the more distressed he became. And then Lace came into the room. Rather than waiting for transport to bring the husband for his CT scan, Lace wheeled the patient to the scanning area herself. With the frightened wife in tow, Lace calmly suggested that there might be something worthwhile to try for lunch in the cafeteria down the hall, carefully pointed out the direction, and assured her that her husband would be back in a jiffy. Sure enough, just doing something as normal as getting a cup of coffee was enough to calm the wife down. Knowing when to give a gentle nudge and when to give someone their space isn't something that can be taught-but it is a gift that can be lovingly shared.

    As Deborah and Lace address the emotional and logistical needs of patients and their families, they provide a calming, consistent presence while freeing clinical staff to focus on delivering first-rate emergency medical care. "When we don't have a Family Assistant on duty, it makes for a tougher day. I wish we had more!" says Lima-Tessier.

    Lace's professional background includes teaching health, physical and sex education to middle-school students; coaching and teaching tennis to adults, and assisting public figures and celebrities as a corporate flight attendant for Geneva Air. Deborah also served the public as a police officer, EMT, state highway safety coordinator, and a project manager for government public safety contracts. Both women were volunteers at Newport Hospital before becoming Family Assistants.

    Lace and Deborah's "people skills" translate well to the ED, where they effectively mediate communication between staff and families when emotions run high. Deborah says, "So often, all it takes to flip the mood over from negative to positive is just acknowledging someone's feelings and letting them know you care."