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Negative Experience Creates Strong Patient Advocate

April 19, 2024

What started as a negative experience — Julie Ciucias’ husband was brought to Hartford Hospital having a heart attack in February 2019 — has transformed into a positive connection that is affecting lives.

Richard Pikulski, now 76 and a Vietnam veteran with Agent Orange-related health issues requiring round-the-clock care, arrived in a health crisis. He spent 70 days in the hospital, moving from intensive care cardiac unit (ICU) to regular ICU to step-down unit to regular floor. On the scheduled day discharge, a doctor called Ciucias to brusquely inform her that her husband was in a coma but being sent home anyway.

“I said, ‘No, the rehab will send him right back,’” she recalls. “I practically flew in there. It was not a good experience. I told the doctor, ‘There is only one man getting him out of here today and that is the man upstairs.’

“I will advocate for my husband until there isn’t a breath left in my body.”

Ultimately, while Ciucias prevailed and Pikulski moved back to a critical care unit, the experience was stressful and upsetting. Today, Pikulski is back home.

“This experience led to a lot of emotion and disappointment,” Ciucias says. “I wanted to meet with the doctor and get an apology. It took about a year working with the Patient Experience Department for that to occur.”

In addition to the apology, she was invited by Ajay Kumar, MD, Hartford HealthCare’s executive vice president and chief clinical officer, to join the company’s Quality and Safety Governance Board overseeing quality of patient care and associated issues. She agreed.

Stephanie Calcasola, chief quality officer and vice president, works with the board.

“We need the perspective of the patient and patient caregivers,” Calcasola says. “We recognize healthcare is complex and we need to co-partner with patients and families. Julie is a good voice for them. She advocates for good, respectful communication. She knows it’s not perfect. She will hold us accountable.”

Ciucias, a physical therapist, also brings medical, management and industry quality and safety experience to the work.

“Being able to contribute to a quality-focused healthcare system like Hartford HealthCare is an honor and a privilege,” she says. “They are authentically committed and receptive to hearing the voice of the patient, their family and caregivers. That apology meant the world to me, but what has meant even more is being a patient representative on the board. I believe I’m making a difference.”