by Kirsty Benton
One of the cruellest parts of COVID-19 is the way it is separating unwell people from their family and friends during their illness. Due to the dangerous spread of this disease, and the fact that ventilators significantly increase spread of the virus droplets, many hospitals have taken the difficult decision to limit visitors.
This is particularly an issue in critical care units, of which many have had to close their units to visitors for the safety of patients, visitors, staff and the public. Thankfully this is not an issue that will affect the vast proportion of you. For those it does affect, I know this will be extremely difficult. As healthcare workers, we will always be there for your loved one so, although they are isolated, they will not be alone. Here is some advice and initiatives hospitals are undertaking to help you support your loved one while you can’t be with them.
Preparation. Going into hospital is a scary thought, but if you or your loved one can be prepared, you will be grateful for how much easier communication may be with them once they are admitted. Ensure they have their mobile phone and charger with them. The ability to phone them directly rather than the busy wards will be incredibly reassuring to you at home. Having their own phone and charger will be invaluable. Downloading and familiarising yourself with online platforms such as Facetime, Skype or Zoom will be helpful as there is nothing like seeing each other’s faces to feel more connected.
Items of emotional value can be something that brings great support to people while they are in hospital. If there is something you know will bring them comfort, such as photos of family, a favourite book or a small cuddly toy, ensure they take it with them into hospital. Some hospitals have NHS volunteers who may be able to come and collect any items of emotional value and bring them to the patient while you are in isolation. Ensure these labelled items are put in a zip locked bag to protect the Volunteer.
Messages of love. If your loved one does not have a phone with them, check with your hospital if there is a number you can message where they can pass on or print out those messages for them.
Spiritual support. The hospital may have a spiritual care team and many of them are available to sit with your loved one no matter their faith and can be a great source of care.
If your loved one deteriorates and needs to be sedated, then it is important to ask the critical care team how best for you to contact them or if they have specific times that they will contact you in the day. Unfortunately, as healthcare workers are wearing protective equipment all day they are unable to answer phone calls about patients as they normally would. Different hospitals have alternative ways to tackle this problem. It may be that you are contacted by senior clinicians or the hospital may also have a communication liaison team who will kindly try and answer your general questions when you call or arrange meetings with you and your family on the phone or online.
Getting to know your loved one. By the time a patient is in critical care they are very unwell. They may be sedated, attached to a ventilator and we know some of the sickest patients respond well to being placed on their front for long periods to give their lungs lots of space for deep breaths. However, this means they often look very different to how you know them at home. Find out if the hospital has a way to print out a photo of your loved one to put above their bed. It can also be really helpful to also send a sentence to describe your loved one to have written on a board beside their bed. It helps the doctors and nurses looking after them get to know them.
Tell the staff the type of music, radio programmes, TV shows your loved one enjoys so we can play it by their bedside. Even if they are sedated, some background familiarity can be comforting to them.
Your voice. Ask your hospital if there is a way you can send a voice message from you and other family and friends to play at their bedside to comfort them. If you or your loved one can give permission to use their mobile phone and password for voice notes and videos, this is much easier. Messages to tell them to you miss them, love them, thank them and forgive them can be helpful to both you and your loved one.
I hope that none of you find yourself in this situation but if you do, and you are unable to visit, I hope this advice may help you feel connected at such a difficult time.