At St. Mary’s Hospital in Madison, Wis., the care management team of social workers and nurses works hard to ensure a smooth transition for patients, whether they’re heading to a rehabilitation facility or back home. So last winter, when a homeless woman who had been admitted for alcoholism was transferring to the long-term, intensive treatment program, Debra Noell, a social worker, wanted to make sure she made the transition with dignity.

“She’d been living on the street and her clothes were very torn up,” Noell says. “We had talked about how this was a fresh start for her.” The team had a collection of clothes for patients who might need them, but “at that point, it was really just a few tattered pieces of clothing in totes and garbage bags,” explains Jennifer Anderson, nursing manager for care management. Noell went to the closet hoping to find appropriate outfits and a pair of rugged shoes, but couldn’t find anything that fit the woman. “She was very petite. As far as shoes, all we really had were some high heels and some huge men’s work boots.”

The woman left the hospital with a couple of oversized outfits and wearing a too-big coat and work boots stuffed with paper towels and socks. “She didn’t leave with the dignity that I wanted and hoped for her as she started on this new phase of her life,” Noell says. “She was being brave, and I felt really badly about the clothes. It haunted me.”

So, Noell decided to do something about it. She asked her supervisor if she could sort through the closet, get rid of the inappropriate stuff and add fresh items. Her supervisor enthusiastically agreed. “Our hospital has really strong shared leadership,” Anderson says. “They supported it wholeheartedly.” A large space in the team’s new office area was designated for the revamped clothes closet.

As Noell began sorting through the clothes, she found that roughly half of the items were unsuitable for patients: tattered fabrics, items with lots of food stains — basically, they needed to be thrown away. “Our team has a meeting every morning, and I kept asking if people had anything that was of good quality to donate, things that would help our patients leave here with dignity,” Noell explains. “The social workers and nurses on our team knew this was an issue, and we started getting a lot of donations of really nice clothes.”

The care management team began to rally around the cause. “We ended up with 11 bags of clothes we wanted to keep,” Noell says. “It was too much for one person [to handle], so I asked my co-workers to each take home a bag to launder.” And, she says proudly, “Everybody did.”

The team members brought the clothes back clean and folded or on hangers. Money was found in the budget to build hanging racks, and storage units and shelving were reappropriated. Everything was sorted by size to make it easier to find what was needed. “Between money for laundry and everything else, the team members spent a good bit out of their own pockets to help make it happen,” Anderson says.

Next, the hospital’s communications team got involved, and an article ran in the staff newsletter about the clothes closet, including a call for donations. “Once that article went out, the whole hospital embraced it,” Noell says. “We haven’t gone a day without somebody donating something. We started getting better shoes, some winter boots and lots of new underwear and socks.”

While homeless patients are the major proportion of people who utilize the closet, it has served a variety of patients in many different situations. “I think we’ve probably accessed it at least once a day since we redid the closet,” Noell says. “It might be just for a pair of shoes or it might be a whole new outfit.” For example, recently, an elderly woman who had fallen at home was admitted to St. Mary’s wearing a nightgown. As she was heading from the hospital to a rehabilitation facility, Noell was able to give her a suitable outfit. Another patient was admitted with lice, and all his clothes had to be incinerated. The care management team discharged him in fresh, clean, weather-appropriate clothing.