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Anthony's Hands: Aurora nurse offers families a keepsake in their loved one's final hours

Program started when 16-year-old died by suicide
Posted: 9:30 PM, May 26, 2022
Updated: 2022-05-28 23:40:02-04
Anthony's Hands: Aurora nurse offers families a keepsake in their loved one's final hours

AURORA, Colo. — Ever since she can remember, Cheryl Carlson watched her mom and dad create things with their hands.

“This machine is from 1958, maybe ’59,” Carlson said of an old sewing machine she inherited. “It was my mother’s. She sewed all our clothes on it while I was little.”

Her father was also a craftsman.

“He was a carpenter and artist,” Carlson said. “His hands were very scarred from woodworking and everything that he did.”

So, it’s no real surprise that this Lone Tree mother has a knack for creating things with her hands.

“This is my workhorse,” Carlson said of her sewing machine. “I sew a lot, do a lot of painting, a lot of photography.”

Anthony's Hands: Aurora nurse offers families a keepsake in their loved one's final hours

And when she’s not in her sewing room, Carlson tries to bring that same passion with her to the bedside at The Medical Center of Aurora, where she’s been for the last 12 years.

“I’ve worked as a nurse for almost 38 years, most of which has been in the intensive care unit,” she said. “When I’m here, I’m here for the family. I’m here for the patient.”

Like she was for Anthony Hernandez and his family.

“I was on my way home, I would have been there in minutes,” said Anthony’s mom, Jennifer Hernandez. “He could have just waited to talk to me. There is nothing harder than losing a child, and when your child completes suicide – it’s even harder because they made that decision.”

Anthony was 16 at the time and seemingly had it all – charming, funny, smart, good looking, lots of friends. But on the inside, his mom says he, like so many others, suffered.

“And to just know that the best option for him was to take his own life is probably the most excruciating, painful things that I will ever have to deal with,” Hernandez said.

Anthony clung to life at The Medical Center of Aurora for three days. His mom never left his side.

She also formed a bond with a nurse named Cheryl Carlson.

“The time that [Carlson] would come into the room, I remember it so well,” Hernandez said. “Anthony wasn’t even able to respond, and every single time she came into the room, she addressed him with his name.”

“That could be my son, that could be my child,” Carlson said. “That could have been me. That could have been any of us.”

Then, Carlson offered a gift.

“It just kind of hit me, "Hey – I can give back to them what I wish I would have had for myself and for my dad,"" Carlson said. "There’s something tangible in the hands. The hand tells a story."

“I will always remember the moment that we held [Anthony's] hand, and we made this hand mold,” Hernandez said.

Nurse Carlson took the entire Hernandez family and placed their hands in a bucket of mold while they held Anthony’s hand.

“The story of Anthony’s Hands,” Cheryl said. “We had to move Anthony to the side of the bed to get five hands into one bucket. And you have to be still for 5 minutes. It was very heartwarming because it brought them together as a group, as a family for one last time.”

Capturing a moment in time — giving families a treasure forever.

“It’s very special to our entire family,” Hernandez said.

The Medical Center of Aurora now calls them Anthony’s Hands, and since then, Carlson has overseen the heartbreaking, yet beautiful process of molding hands clasped together for dozens of other families.

“Since Anthony’s Hands, we’ve done it here at The Medical Center of Aurora probably 12 to 15 times,” Carlson said. “Once at [Swedish Medical Center] and once at Littleton Adventist Hospital, as well.”

Piece by piece, Carlson creates unique beauty every time.

“It’s about taking care of the soul that’s here,” she said. “The soul that’s hurting.”

In hopes of soothing a small piece of that sorrow.

“It was one of the many things that Cheryl did to show us kindness and to show us compassion while we were losing our son,” Hernandez said.

Anthony now lives on, not only in that beautiful keepsake, but in others.

“He became an organ donor when he turned 16,” Hernandez said. “He made that decision.”

The Hernandez family received a letter from the recipient who received Anthony’s liver, who says he’s now living a normal life after years on the donor waiting list.

“Thank you from the bottom of my heart. Respectfully yours, Eric,” the letter reads in part.

As for Carlson's hands and that old sewing machine with such a history, she made Jennifer and the Hernandez family one more gift.

“I was like, "Let’s make a quilt,"” she said.

Carlson delivered the quilt to Jennifer during the filming of this story.

“I love it,” Jennifer said. “I absolutely love it. Thank you.”

In 2020 more than 45,000 Americans died by suicide, which is now the second-leading cause of death among young people ages 10 to 24. May is Mental Health Awareness Month.

If you or a loved one is struggling, the Health-One Behavioral Health and Wellness Center offers 24/7 support. Just call 844-556-2012.