Three years ago, as an oncology volunteer, I got to know my patients quite well. One was particularly fond of long conversations. He enjoyed sharing his life stories and adventures. I volunteered almost everyday, and he, his roommate and I would spend hours sharing stories and jokes and sometimes singing. (It was all completely within the realm of what volunteers do in this program.)
Near the end of my stint, he gave me a handwritten note expressing his best wishes.
Limiting the information I write; but, he worked in an industry that suffered a major accident some years ago. His illness (and ultimate passing) were a delayed result of that accident. The note he gave me was written on a postcard from that industry, and he signed his name alongside the name of his specific company/workplace.
After a few months, I left the volunteer position.
Just recently, I found the card again and google-searched his name (it was impulsive; I understand now this was a HIPAA violation). I learned that he passed away. I was and still am devastated; he was a person with incredible integrity. I feel an impulse to grieve somehow — I carry his card with me; I visited a memorial for his industry, and wandered around for hours, crying a little and remembering our time.
But I am afraid this is all inappropriate and boundary-crossing. I broke HIPAA by searching his name and learning information I was not entitled to (although…. if he gave me a signed card with his name, and I searched based on that information not information from the hospital, is that still HIPAA-breaking?).
It also seems really inappropriate to visit the memorial or 'grieve' someone who I had a purely clinical relationship with.
Am I correct that reading about a former patient online, carrying the card and visiting a memorial are inappropriate? Should I be backing off and/or addressing my own boundary issues with a psychologist to prevent future boundary-crossing?
Or, is it in fact acceptable and normal to 'grieve' a patient in this manner?
One more question: He really wanted me to meet his wife, and her to meet me, because she was so important to him and appeared in all his stories (and apparently enjoyed telling her about his volunteer as well). When she visited, he made a point of introducing us, and we all sat together and shared stories. I assume it would be inappropriate and/or HIPAA-non-compliant to contact his wife, share some memories, and extend my condolences?
I have also been tempted to walk by the company/workplace he signed in his note, just to see what it the place was like that meant so much to him. Would that be wrong as well?
Thank you for any guidance; please believe that I truly regret any boundaries I have crossed, and am genuinely trying to learn how to navigate them correctly as I move forwards.
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