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When tragedy strikes
Two employees dead, one in a car crash another murdered, leaves a practice reeling.
Arlington, Va. — The murder of a newlywed staff member was still raw in the minds of Caring Hands Animal Hospital employees in Arlington, Va. when another young employee was killed in a January car crash.
The dual tragedies could have paralyzed practice operations, but swift action at the time of the tragedy helped the practice cope and heal.
Dr. Jeffery Newman, one of the practice owners, says he struggled with his own grief and that of his staff. "I worry so much about the well-being of my staff — they're my family."
Caring Hands Animal Hospital's strong sense of family was the rock that helped them manage not one, but two, tragedies in their office.
"We cared, maybe more," Newman says. "But we opened our hearts for that level of hurt. It also helped everyone get through it."
Newman says Graciela "Grace" Marandino was like a daughter to him. He met her when she was 15 years old; he put her through veterinary technician school and she was his first employee when he opened his own practice.
When Grace got engaged to Mario Jennings and couldn't afford a wedding, practice owners Newman and Dr. Michelle Vitulli paid for her reception. Grace asked Newman to give her away at the wedding and he did.
When she died in a fire set by Jennings and efforts to find local family members failed, the doctors paid for the 31-year-old woman's funeral.
"You don't normally think you're going to be helping to plan the funeral of your employee," Newman says. Still, "all of my employees know that I will do anything for them."
The police investigation, media reports and client questions followed, making her death even tougher for her work family to handle.
"It was absolutely devastating to our business and our staff," says office manager Karen Mullins. "We used to be so full of laughter and life and plans and camaraderie. And we don't have the same energy. It just died with her."
Everybody had trouble working after getting the news. Some of the 32 staff members wanted to talk; others were quiet.
"I couldn't — you know — I couldn't talk to anybody without just losing it," says Newman. Even retelling the story more than a year later, he pauses to compose himself. "I think my inability to keep it together gave everybody permission to grieve how they wanted. I was worst case scenario."
In addition to bringing in a grief counselor to talk to the staff, Newman went to somebody privately. "The counselor was good for me. She told me it was OK. Everybody grieves differently."
At the group session, the staff was encouraged to talk about Grace — their memories of her, her laughter and the Hungry Man frozen dinners the petite woman would eat for breakfast.
The staff even got suggestions for handling client questions — which were especially troubling because of the circumstances surrounding her death. The clients adored her, Mullins says.
Employees were instructed "not to engage in hurtful questions. But to say we're reeling from the loss of our dear friend, and we're focused on getting over this tragedy," Mullins says.
While the initial session was helpful the staff declined an offer to continue with the counselor. "They had each other," Mullins says.
Memorializing Grace's cubbie, where she stored her belongings during the work day, helps the staff remember her fondly. A journal in the office is available for employees to write in when they want to talk to her, Mullins says.
And the practice decided to offer free veterinary services to a nearby women's shelter that allows women fleeing domestic violence to bring their pets to the shelter, Newman says.
On the anniversary of her death, the staff went out to remember her life. That night, they decided to celebrate her birthday instead of her death day, Mullins says. Her birthday is in January.
And then, this January, another young veterinary technician, Lauren Whitestone, was killed in a car accident.
"When Lauren died, we didn't ask, we just brought in the grief counselor," she says. "It was just too, too much."
The emotional reaction among the staff was different this time, and it bothered Newman because his reaction was different too. People were not showing as much emotion. That's where the counselor's advice helped.
"We were all somewhat shocked and numb from what happened a year prior," Newman says.
The practice owners brought in catered lunches daily until the day of the funeral. They closed the office on that day.
Newman says the staff is still deciding how they'll honor Lauren Whitestone's memory. Photos of Grace and Lauren remain on the practice's Web site — a silent memorial to them. The women are not identified, but leaving their photos on the Web site seem to say that they'll always be a part of the practice.
"They were beautiful girls and the doctors really provided an environment where they were both nurtured and given opportunity to grow and be loved," Mullins says. "They were lucky that they were allowed to grow up in the place they did. And I'm happy that was a part of their life experience before they suffered such a cruel loss."