On a snowy Sunday, the day after Christmas, 1920, the world gained an intrepid, engaging and irrepressible individual named Alice, a bright light who continues to shine in the darkness.
Like others of "the greatest generation," Alice persevered through the Great Depression, World War II, unemployment, divorce and raising me as a single mother without complaint or self-pity but with humor and endless optimism. While money was tight, joy, laughter and music were abundant in our humble home.
If ever there was a person who embodied the joie de vivre spirit, it was Alice Brennan. I often referred to her as the family’s Lucille Ball, the life of the party and my best friend.
In life she was a hard-working woman, tireless caregiver and my biggest cheerleader. In death she is a beacon of light: Her life’s final chapter has educated thousands of medical, nursing, pharmacy and physical therapy students across the region and the nation about the life-saving importance of medication safety for older patients.
As the world navigates the challenges of a terrifying global pandemic, it is easy to forget the pandemic of medical errors that has infected U.S. health care for decades: Its most vulnerable victims are the fragile elderly.
A 2018 Johns Hopkins study reported that 250,000 Americans die each year from medical error, and that’s during so-called “normal” years when there was no global pandemic. In 2009, Alice Brennan was one of them.
Admitted to a community hospital for routine treatment of gout, Alice suffered a cascade of medical errors and system failures, including, but not limited to, polypharmacy, medication error, falls and infections, including the deadly onslaught of MRSA, C-difficile and Vancomycin Resistant Enterococcus (VRE). This once vibrant, independent and feisty senior died six weeks after being admitted. The heartbreaking reality is that her death was entirely preventable.
Mom was a “light a candle rather than curse the darkness” kind of gal so, inspired by her philosophy, Team Alice was born. A multipronged initiative of the University at Buffalo’s Center for Successful Aging, Team Alice works with patients and caregivers, the health system and researchers to keep the fragile elderly safe. Videos on the Team Alice YouTube channel are based on Mom’s story and aim to empower patients like her to save themselves from medication harm.
Since Mom’s untimely death, I have been collaborating with UB’s Department of Family Medicine and with physicians, pharmacists, nurses and other Western New York health care providers to save all the future Alices.
Happy birthday, Mom. Because of you, untold numbers of seniors may live to dance another day.
Mary Brennan-Taylor is an adjunct assistant professor in the Department of Family Medicine in the Jacobs School of Medicine and Biomedical Sciences at UB.