An Interview with Janet and Laura Greenwald founders of Stuf & NOKEP

By Laura & Janet Greenwald


Editor:  We’re here with the creators of Stuf Production's, Safe Family and Safe Student Action Plans, Janet and Laura Greenwald. 

Stuf was founded by mother and daughter writing team Janet and Laura Greenwald, who were unexpectedly thrust into the world of healthcare and politics when Janet’s mother Elaine died at the hands of a Chicago hospital.  Their experiences compelled them to create their non-profit Next of Kin Education Project.  And now, with the recent shootings and natural disasters striking universities throughout the country, the duo has used the knowledge gained from NOKEP, in an entirely new way – one that safeguards families and college students nationwide.  But first, I’d like to talk a little about the circumstances that brought you to where we are now.   Jan, can you tell me a little about that time?   

Jan:  Of course.  My mother Elaine Sullivan, seventy-one at the time, was very active and living on her own in Chicago and Laura and I were living and working in Los Angeles.  One morning my mother slipped and fell while getting into the bathtub.  Mom had been scheduled to go on vacation, so when we didn’t hear from her, we didn’t think anything was wrong.   A neighbor found her a few hours later and called the paramedics.  She had injured her leg and arm in the fall, and she hit her mouth pretty badly, which made her unable to speak.    She was stable when they brought her into the hospital. 

ED:  Did the hospital call you two to tell you what happened?  

Laura:  No.  The hospital had our contact information right in her chart.  But even though Grandma couldn’t sign any consent forms and basically didn’t know where she was or what had happened, the hospital didn’t call us.  Her condition grew worse for six days, which we found later, was caused by what some medical professionals have called, one of the worst cases of negligence they’ve ever seen.   

ED: Like what?   

J:   Because my mother’s mouth was injured in the fall, she was not only unable to speak, but unable to swallow.  Doctors ordered tube feedings which should have begun the morning after she was admitted.  Instead, her feedings didn’t begin for nearly six days.  

L:   And that wasn’t all.  When we received the records, we found out that wounds she had on her arms and legs from the fall, hadn’t been treated and that she had been given a cardiac medication that interacted with another medication she was already taking.  

ED:  So when did the hospital finally call you?  

J:   They finally called to us to tell us she’d been hospitalized, just hours before she died.  We couldn’t make it back to Chicago quickly enough to get to her and she passed away, completely alone.  A few weeks later, once we received the hospital records, we found out that her death could have been easily prevented.  

L:  Investigative agencies and our medical expert concluded that, had the hospital taken the time to get her medical and prescription drug history from us, it would have prevented the drug interactions and infection that took her life.  

ED:  Is that why you created The Next of Kin Education Project?  

J:  Yes.  Although many things the hospital did or failed to do, contributed to Mom’s death, the one thing that stood out more than anything else, is their failure to call us.  That one decision set everything in motion….   Not only that, but had we been allowed to be at her side right away, I would have made sure that she received the care she needed.  She would have been fed, her wounds would have been treated and she would have had the medication she needed.  There is no doubt in my mind, that my mother would have lived.  

L:  Once we discovered the circumstances that caused Grandma’s death, we began to talk to other families who had gone through the same thing.  We found out that there were no laws in California, Illinois or forty other states mandating a patient’s next of kin be called, even if a patient is unconscious or unable to communicate.   

J:  So we decided to do two things.  First we worked with legislators in both of our states, to create the Next of Kin Law, which was enacted in 2001.  Congress is currently working on creating a federal version of the law.  Second we founded the Next of Kin Education Project, to create a patient care system designed to prevent the same thing that happened to my mother, from happening to anyone else’s family. 

L: Since 2002 NOKEP has been providing hospitals with the techniques and resources needed to notify and reunite trauma victims, John Does and unconscious emergency room patients with their loved ones quickly and easily.   

ED: I noticed quite a few articles were written about your efforts as well.   What are a few of the things you have accomplished?  

L:  Like we said, we’ve authored and enacted three Next of Kin laws in California and Illinois and are working on a federal version of the law.  We’ve distributed the Seven Steps to Successful Notification System to over 100,000 hospital decision makers and I’m happy to say that Methodist Medical Centers in Texas have just rolled out our Seven Steps patient care program in all of their emergency departments.    

J:  Our Safer Family Action Tips and an early version of the Grab it and Go Forms, have been downloaded thousands of times worldwide.  The plan and system give families the tools they need to safeguard their vital information and emergency medical and contact information, so that they can access it and use it wherever they are in any kind of emergency.   

ED:  Which brings us to the Safe Student Action Plan.  How did that come about?  

J:  Like everyone else these past two years, we’ve been watching the tragedies on our college campuses.  Between shootings at universities like Virginia Tech, NIU here in Illinois and natural disasters like the Union University tornado, universities have been put into a position where they have to have mass casualty plans, emergency plans and safety systems up and running for their students.  

L:  Not only have we had experience with creating patient safety systems and emergency tools for hospitals and families, but we’ve been in the unique position to have experienced a few disasters ourselves.   

ED:  Really?  What kinds of disasters?  

J:  When I was a teenager, my mother and I went through two major floods, that destroyed most of our furniture and possessions.  Then Laura and I went through the Whittier earthquake, two tornadoes, and were just a few houses away from the United 737 crash in the early seventies that destroyed five of our neighbor’s homes.  We know how it feels to have just a few moments to grab what you feel you can’t live without, and we know how critical it is, to have your emergency contacts, vital information and medical background at your fingertips anytime you might need it.   

L:  So we were curious to hear the types of emergency plans universities would create to safeguard their students.  

J:  But all we kept hearing were plans for preventing emergencies, like psychological profiling of students, beefing up security or steps like implementing broadcast text messaging to warn students when dangerous situations strike.   All of those things are important, but no one was addressing tools to help students who become victims of those emergencies.

L:  Focusing on preparation rather than prevention is vital.   No matter what you do, no one can prevent every emergency.  

J:  So we starting researching the way universities handle things like emergency contact information.  For one thing, I was surprised to find that most colleges are still using standard paper-based emergency contact cards.  Then we began to hear story after story about students who had been injured or become ill, yet their emergency card and medical information, never made it to the hospital with them.  

L: Right, and even worse, the news of the injury never made it to their next of kin.  We’ve heard several stories about students who had sustained serious injuries – one who become ill, passed out on the sidewalk and was unconscious for several hours – another who broke his neck.  In both cases, after finding out neither the hospital nor the school contacted the student’s parents.  The student’s friends ended up having to find their parents contact information and make the notification call themselves.   

ED:  How can something like that happen?  

J:  That’s what we wondered.  What we found is that in universities, student’s emergency contact cards and medical information is often stored in two or more places.  If an emergency occurs after office hours, there may not be anyone to retrieve the information and send it over to the hospital.  Or in a large university, by the time the administration office is notified that a student was hospitalized, it might be too late.  

ED:  So what did you decide to do about it?  

L:  We kept feeling that our experience, coupled with the action plans, checklists and Grab it and Go Forms, we had created through NOKEP, could help save student’s lives in anything from a mass casualty situation to a basic medical emergency.  There’s a huge need right now, to give college students access to the tools and information they need to save their lives and their possessions in case the unforeseen happens.   So we combined all of our tools for documenting medical and vital information, with our Safer Family Action Plan and Grab it and Go forms to create a quick and easy Action Plan that college students can use in nearly ANY type of emergency.   

ED:  But college students are young and healthy for the most part.  I know the occasional disaster on a campus could be a problem, but how many students actually need medical help while they’re away at school?  

J:  You’d be surprised.  Every year in the US: 599,000 college students are injured; 1,700 college students die from alcohol-related emergencies; over 30,000 students need emergency health care for alcohol overdose; more than 696,000 college students are assaulted; more than 97,000 college students are sexually abused.  And nationwide there are more than 110 million emergency room visits in the US ever year and, as we found out the hard way, 98,000 people die from medical errors that could have been prevented with a detailed medical history.  

ED:   Some universities must be good at contact a student’s next of kin or transmitting their history to hospitals.  University hospitals for example.  

L:  Of course.  Many of them are very good.  But that just brings up another point.  No matter how good the university is at notifying a student’s parents if something happens, have you ever wondered how often students update their medical information?  And even if the cards are up to date, would the information on the standard card save a student’s life in a serious medical emergency?   

ED: Not necessarily.   

J:  We created Stuf because up to date, detailed, medical information can make the difference between life and death for a critically injured student.  Physicians treating a critical patient don’t have the time to find a student’s parents or next of kin to obtain their medical history.  And treating a patient without the benefit of that history – allergies, medications that might interact with what they’re about to be given, or even past illnesses that could make treatment difficult – can be as deadly as the initial injury.  By taking one afternoon with the Safe Student Action Plan parents and students can have both -- the medical background and the names and numbers of their emergency contacts available at their fingertips – so no matter what a hospital needs, they’ll have it immediately.  

ED:  That makes a lot of sense and I’m glad I’ve had the opportunity to get the word out about this important tool for students.  Thanks for your time and I wish you the best of everything in your new endeavor.  

Want a great way to keep your family safe?

How about Grab it and Go Forms to capture medical history, insurance, financial and vital documents for every member of the family, that can be filled out by hand, or by computer, secured and ready whenever you need them?  Or customizable emergency action plans, home inventory, tips, checklists and  printable wallet cards.   Check out Ready In 10 Today!





Laura and Janet Greenwald, are the founders of The Next of Kin Education Project and Stuf Productions.  The mother & daughter team were not only instrumental in enacting three Next of Kin Laws in California and Illinois, but created the Seven Steps to Successful Notification System, which teaches quick, easy, next of kin notification skills for trauma patients to hospitals like Dallas’ Methodist Medical Center. 


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