On a stormy Thursday afternoon in June, a small crowd gathered in the waiting room on the second floor of St. Luke’s Magic Valley Medical Center.
The reason for the crowd? A 40th birthday party for a special patient.
The dress code for the party: all things Disney.
Among princesses, a pirate, a mermaid, an evil queen and quite a few friends in mouse ears or character T-shirts, the guest of honor held court dressed as Cruella de Vil.
That was Carmen Koehn.
While Cruella — the character — is a villain who should not be allowed anywhere near puppies, Carmen-as-Cruella was smiling ear to ear as she held a happy dog on her lap.
Koehn had arrived in the hospital a few days earlier with her guardian, Robyn Dayley.Robyn runs a certified family home for developmentally disabled adults, and she takes the words “family home” to heart, noting she started the home in 1999.
William (dressed as Captain Hook at the party) was the first to move in, with Carmen and then Danielle (in costume as Elsa) arriving in the early 2000s. Debbie (known to party guests as Maleficent) became part of the family in 2017, though she had grown close to the group for several years prior to moving in.
“This is their forever home and that’s how I always said it and always saw it,” Dayley said. “Santa Claus comes, the Easter bunny comes, Halloween is 24/7.”
It’s a family that loves to celebrate, so when Carmen was hospitalized just before her 40th birthday, there was concern that a party wouldn’t be possible.
Carmen’s palliative care team at St. Luke’s stepped up to the challenge. She had a palliative care consult after a terminal cancer diagnosis last year, but in June, the timing was more urgent.
“It was a little unclear how things were going to go in the short-term, so we thought ‘let’s take advantage of people being able to come,’” said Dr. Daniel Pruecil, director of St. Luke’s Palliative Care Program. “The answer is always ‘yes.’ Can we do the party early? The answer is ‘absolutely’ and if you have two parties, fantastic, but you don’t want to miss out.”
Christina Thongdee is a licensed clinical social worker who can now add party planner to her resume after a heroic effort to make sure Carmen was properly celebrated.
“It was a collaborative effort,” said Thongdee, recognizing St. Luke’s catering, nursing staff and hospital gift shop among many others. “We have a really good crew here at St. Luke’s to make everything happen.”
“This was truly a group effort,” Dr. Pruecil echoed. “We always talk about how in difficult situations, take advantage of people doing well and celebrate when you can.”
St. Luke’s team members joined Carmen’s family and friends to sing “Happy Birthday.” Carmen smiled and laughed in a room filled with decorations, presents and carrot cake — her favorite.
There was some concern Carmen might not be up for a party, but she rallied when she heard the news just a few days prior.
“They told me,” Carmen explained, when asked if the party was a surprise. “Robyn told me that Thursday everyone is coming over!”
They came on just a few days’ notice, and they came through pouring rain. Some even came from hundreds of miles away, including Robyn’s daughter, Pam, who made the trip from California with her dog, Kika.
At Carmen’s palliative care consult, she not only mentioned her 40th birthday, she talked about missing the dog.
Kika joined the family as a puppy, but now lives in Los Angeles where Pam is working on her PhD at UCLA. Family is still family, no matter how far, and Kika settled right in on Carmen’s lap like no time had passed at all.
Carmen’s special celebration brought happy smiles to a family going through a time of grief and tears. On June 25, 2023, Carmen Marie Koehn died, two days after her 40th birthday. After her passing, Dayley said she was very thankful for the St. Luke’s team’s care and the impromptu birthday party, one last celebration for a special person.
“I never expected to have the support, love and the empathy from staff and strangers that came our way, that we have now bonded with and can call friends,” Dayley said. “Carmen touches the heart of all that she meets, but those (at St. Luke’s) that put this together for her, that care for her and my unique family, or simply cheered us on in the halls, are literally mending our broken heart and soul.”
Kelly Franson is the public relations manager at St. Luke's Magic Valley.