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Barbara Seiler: Leaving a legacy

A picture of two people standing next to a patient lying in a hospital bed.

(From left)Katherine Zimmerman, Dr. Kathleen Sawey and patient Barbara Seiler show off the plaster cast of hands they made as part of the legacy project Sawey is heading up. (VA photos by Steve Goetsch)

By Steve Goetsch
Wednesday, July 26, 2017
Editors Note: This story is based off of interviews completed in early May.

Barbara Seiler passed away on May 30, 2017. As a long-time VA social worker whose work took her through Waco, Kerrville, and eventually the Audie Murphy VA hospital, her legacy, like so many social workers, is evident in the hundreds of Veterans they assist and return to leading improved, productive lives. 
            Barbara’s legacy is also cemented in a single word; Veteran. Like many, she raised her hand to defend her country, spending six years in the active duty Army, and six years in the reserves. She quickly made her mark. “There were colonels who saw potential in me,” Seiler said. “They sent me back to school and I ended up being a dental therapist.” She eventually made the transition to social work and knew it was the best move. “It was a great career and I don’t regret one minute of it,” Seiler said with a bit of emotion in her voice.
            Being a VA social worker might have also prepared her for her long battle with cancer. She had a boss early on during her career that believed in having well-rounded social workers. “We had a chief who believed taking you out of your comfort zone,” Seiler said. “I went through the dialysis, HIV and several other units, so I dealt with death and dying.”
            Barbara looked at peace, grinning ear-to-ear, cracking inter-service jokes along the way. But what about her family, most importantly Katherine, whom she married in 2015 and was together with for more than three decades?
            Katherine having a medical background as a nurse also prepared her for the death process, but the couple was approached by Dr. Kathy Sawey and her team of residents who are undertaking a project aptly named, “The Legacy Project.” Its purpose is to better prepare Veterans and their families as they approach end-of-life.

“We offer a legacy project to Veterans as part of a research project to see if doing them will assist in a family’s grief,” Sawey explained.

A plaster cast of clasped hands being held up by two people.

In a closeup of the plaster casts, you can see the shape of the custom ring that was made by VA social worker Barbara Seiler for her wife, Katherine Zimmerman.

            Originally rejecting the idea, both Barbara and Katherine thought by being on hospice, they would not have time to complete some of the other project options like a journal, or videotaped interviews. That was until Dr. Sawey presented the idea of the plaster casts, accompanying the pitch with a sample made from the hands of the residents.
            One of those residents, Yiressy Carol Izaguirre-Baday, a second-year medical student at the University of Texas Health Science Center San Antonio, was eager to participate in a research project because of the dedication she saw from the VA staff. “Working with Dr. Sawey and Student Education and Palliative Care Coordinator, Betty Beck along with the rest of the palliative care team has exceeded my expectations.”

            Izaguirre-Baday added that it is rewarding to work with people that genuinely care about their patients. Not just the physical well-being, but their emotional, psychological and spiritual well-being.

            Barbara’s wife Katherine was on board right away. She has keepsakes from different members of her family throughout the years. “Most people, when someone dies, has a thing,” Katherine explained. “Something from that person that means something to them like I have from my grandmother, mother and father,” she added.

            Dr. Sawey and her team brought the equipment to do the plaster casting right to her bedside. They faced challenges with getting the hands in the proper position because of Barbara’s swelling and stiffness due to chemotherapy. But they had fun doing it including capturing the love knot ring she had designed and made for Katherine. It was one-of-a-kind, and that is what drew Seiler to the idea of the “hands” statue.

            “[This project] is interesting for me because it is beautiful and I love it,” Seiler said emphatically. “We were so excited when it was brought to us and presented,” Seiler said. “What a perfect thing to put on the mantle because I’m not going to be around, but for her to have that memory of how it started.”

            Sawey explained that their research is limited to providing the options for a legacy project and guiding them through it to completion. This research project is the only one of its type in the network, and Sawey said if the research data supports it, they would like to expand the program nationally.

Since Barbara has passed, the statue graces Katherine’s mantle, and will do so for years to come, but the legacy project also continues at the South Texas VA with the dedicated work of Dr. Sawey and the Palliative Care team. “It motivated me to continue in medicine because it shows me we are capable of bringing about healing all aspects of a person,” Izaguirre-Baday said. “Through hand molds I have seen the joy in caregiver’s faces she added. “I always feel much more at peace when patients pass and we were able to do a project.”

With Barbara Seiler dedicating most of her life to serving her country, providing those vital experiences for the next generation of palliative care providers might be her greatest legacy of all.

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