Health Care

Compassion for veteran earns area nurse recognition

World War II Army veteran Joe Pellegrino wanted nothing more than to see his grandson graduate from Parris Island. Never mind he was battling stage IV colon cancer.

"He kept telling us he was going to attend the graduation if he had to crawl on his hands and knees," said his daughter-in-law, Maggie Pellegrino. "His health was failing, but he was determined to get there."

To make the trip more comfortable for the 85-year-old Michigan resident, the family rented a motor home and drove the 900 miles to the Marine Corps Recruit Depot on Parris Island. But the evening before the ceremony, Pellegrino took a turn for the worse and had to be taken by ambulance to Beaufort Memorial Hospital.

"He was retaining a lot of fluid and was having trouble breathing," Maggie recalled. "When they told him he wouldn't be able to make it to the graduation, we all cried."

But serendipity -- and the resolve of a soft-hearted nurse -- allowed the ailing veteran to get his wish and watch his grandson Nick become a Marine. Last week, Kim Merritt, one of the nurses charged with caring for Pellegrino in the hospital's progressive care unit, received the DAISY Award for Extraordinary Nurses, a national honor bestowed to RNs who go beyond the call of duty. Nomination forms are available throughout the hospital, and anyone can submit one. Merritt's nomination came from a member of the Pellegrino family.

"The DAISY Award is the crème de la crème," Merritt said. "I feel guilty that I was given the award because it was really a group effort that got Mr. Pellegrino to the graduation."

Merritt shared the credit with several other staff members, including Charge Nurses Charlotte Johnson and Pat Cooke, Critical Care Director Diane Razo and Nursing Assistant Cora Thompson.

But in the end, it was Merritt who made the impossible possible.

A part-time day-shift nurse, she wasn't even scheduled to work July 8, the night Pellegrino was brought into Beaufort Memorial Hospital. But the unit was short-staffed, so she was called in at the last minute to cover the shift.

Not long after Merritt went on duty, Pellegrino was brought into the progressive care unit from the emergency room. During the night, they had stabilized him.

"He was still talking about making it to the ceremony," Merritt said. "Here was this World War II veteran, the recipient of a Purple Heart and Bronze Star, who had driven all the way from Michigan to see his grandson graduate from Parris Island. How could we not give him the opportunity?"

Recognizing that Pellegrino was too weak to walk across a field, let alone climb bleachers, Merritt knew the only option was to get him VIP seating. She called her husband, Lt. Col. Paul Merritt, then commander of the Headquarters and Service Battalion at Parris Island. It was 6:30 a.m., and everyone on the base was getting ready to assemble for the big flag-raising formation.

"I couldn't get my husband on the phone, so I started calling everyone I knew on Parris Island," Merritt said.

Several phone calls later, the VIP seating was secured. It was then up to Merritt to make it happen on her end.

The first thing she had to do was get supervising physician Dr. Stacey Johnston to release Pellegrino for a few hours. Johnston agreed to the three-hour furlough, so long as Merritt, a critical care nurse, accompanied the patient.

Thompson found scrubs for Pellegrino to wear while Merritt arranged for his family to meet them at the parade deck with his Army hat and the American Legion jacket bearing his medals. Cooke helped get him into Merritt's car and volunteers brought them several bottles of cold water, knowing it would be blisteringly hot on the parade grounds and Pellegrino would need to stay hydrated.

It was 8:45 a.m. The graduation started at 9. With just minutes to spare, Merritt and her patient arrived at Parris Island where Merritt's husband met them.

Pellegrino was seated in the front row of the VIP reviewing area alongside the brigadier general -- the highest ranking officer on the base, with his dutiful nurse standing behind him.

"It was such a huge deal for him to see his grandson graduate and to have the Marines salute him as they passed the reviewing stand," Maggie Pellegrino said. "It was a great send-off."

Joe Pellegrino passed away seven weeks later in Michigan.

"We knew we had done a good thing that day," Merritt said. "But I can't imagine anyone in the same situation, not doing the same."