Spending an afternoon playing cards with friends is something many of us would eagerly do without much of a second thought. But for patients awaiting heart transplants at Keck Hospital of USC, a couple of hours outside the 4th floor intensive care unit was much more than an opportunity to socialize and unwind: It was a rare chance to feel normal.

“Many of our pre-heart patients are in the ICU for months, so keeping up their hope and motivation is a top priority,” said Nurse Manager Jessica Thomas. “The ICU — with all the beeps and sounds and lights — can become very claustrophobic, confining and lonely.”

So a team of Cardio­vascular Thoracic Intensive Care Unit (CVTICU) staff members — two nurses, an occupational therapist and a respiratory therapist — recently organized a game session for patients capable of being moved.

Moving patients from their rooms in the ICU is no simple task. The team carefully transported the patients and all their equipment — including IV poles, heart monitors and oxygen tanks.

“One of our team members said it would be nice to get our patients together,” Thomas said. “So we made it happen. We reserved a conference room, put together a few tables and played UNO.”

Patients laughed with each other and with staff members as they enjoyed freshly made popcorn and played games brought in by Thomas, who has four young children at home.

Those awaiting a new heart can be dealing with a variety of ailments, including cardiac disease, heart malformations or valve infections. They need to be sick enough to need a new organ but well enough to undergo surgery, recover and complete rehab. Patients might be in their room for months at a time awaiting a new heart.

“In this particular unit, we take care of the sickest hearts in the city,” Thomas said. “Being able to do something like this and bring our patients together was a really gratifying experience.”

After the Game Day, one of the patients received a new heart and has since gone home to recover and rehab. Another patient recently received a new heart and remains in the ICU recovering. A third patient awaits a heart transplant and remains in the ICU. A fourth patient passed away.

Thomas said the impact of such a seemingly simple event was felt across the unit. Staff members hope to coordinate more social events for pre-heart transplant patients.

“Sometimes, patient outcomes are not want what we want them to be,” Thomas said. “So being able to make this Game Day happen was tremendous. I’m proud of my staff for their creativity, their perseverance and for doing a difficult job with compassion and grace.”

— Douglas Morino