"She was my friend my soulmate and the mother of my children. And I’m so grateful to have this," Danny Haulk tells PEOPLE

By Michelle Boudin
May 22, 2017 03:30 PM

Danny Haulk, 61, always keeps his wife’s heartbeat close to his own — thanks to an unusual gift from one of the nurses who cared for her in the days before she died.

“We’re beating together, we’re still beating together. We’re together in spirit — I love her very much,” Danny tells PEOPLE of his late wife, Nelia Haulk.

Nelia died in December 2016 following a three-year battle with cancer. For decades, she had dedicated her life to caring for others as a nurse.

So it’s no surprise that she bonded with the nurses who cared for her at Carolinas Medical Center in Charlotte, North Carolina, during her final days.

From left: Charis Mitchell, Danny Haulk and his daughter, Kristine Haulk
| Credit: Courtesy of David Swanson, Carolinas HealthCare System

And when she passed away, the team that cared for her wanted to do something special for her family. It’s called a “heartbeat in a bottle,” a patient’s last EKG (electrocardiogram reading) printed on a tiny strip of paper and placed in a small bottle.

Charis Mitchell, a surgical trauma nurse who cared for Nelia in the intensive care unit at CMC, says, “We explain to the family members that this is one of the last heartbeats while they were still on earth, and I know you’re going to carry with them wherever you go, but this way you have a piece of their heart with you as well.”

Danny wears his wife’s EKG on a lanyard around his neck.

“I thought people would put it on a dresser or in a box, so to hear that it’s a part of everyday life — I don’t think I could have imagined how impactful that would be for him,” she adds.

Mitchell says she learned how to create the “heartbeat in a bottle” from a fellow nurse who learned how to do it at a Virginia hospital. They used to do it sporadically in Charlotte, but recently decided to teach every nurse in the ICU how to make them.

Nelia Haulk
| Credit: Courtesy of the Haulk family

“It’s so hard to lose the love of your life to this dreaded disease, but I can keep this forever,” Danny says. “It’s a fabulous thing to have and I’ll cherish it forever.

“She was my friend my soulmate and the mother of my children. And I’m so grateful to have this.”