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How to Cope with COVID+ Loved Ones in Isolation

We have our family members alone in hospital beds. Many of them are sedated and intubated to protect their airways. We have no choice but to put our trust in the healthcare professionals caring for our loved ones, but there are aspects of the patient care that upsets me. To be clear, my statements moving forward have absolutely nothing to do with the amazing doctors, nurses, or hospitals themselves. I am overwhelmingly appreciative for all the extra tender love and care these professionals are exuding to our family and friends in our absence. I thank all of you wholeheartedly for your efforts. But, there is a greater problem and together we can fix it.

April 2 was the first day that I personally experienced loss due to COVID-19. My friend, Alex, lost her mother, Jody. Jody was equally a part of our lives - my kids spoke to her on the phone frequently and we actually FaceTimed with her 10 days prior, just 1 day before she was admitted to the hospital. It’s been devastating, sad, and makes it feel real. Since, I’ve had two more friends lose a parent and a grandparent to COVID-19. The theme is sadly the same. The sick are alone, scared, and have only strangers to care for them. They are isolated from their families on their deathbeds.

I spoke to Alex daily, sometimes multiple times a day throughout this process. As a Physician Assistant, I tried my best to help and reassure her that the medical team was doing all the right things and managing her mom’s care in an appropriate way. The wonderful nurse caring for Jody set up a FaceTime session so the family could say goodbye. When Jody heard their voices, she responded with hand movements even though she was sedated. But, the reception kept cutting out and ultimately, seeing their mom in such a poor state and not being able to be there made them even more upset with very little they could do.

There are three distinct problems occurring here.

1. Even though patients are receiving good patient care, it does not and cannot supplement the positive physiologic effects of interaction with loved ones.

2. Social support has been identified as one of the most powerful predictors of well-being, particularly during times of stress but, we are isolated from our sick and dying family members and have questionable means of communication. There is minimal sense of closure.

3. Cell and WiFi service within hospitals is unpredictable.

So let’s discuss the solution: Increasing your communication with family members through audio and/or video media.

Why is this so important?

First, we should take a quick dive into the science world. What happens when our body is under stress and we are separated from the ones we love? Hormones are released, specifically one called cortisol. Cortisol is the body’s built in alarm system. It will engage the “fight or flight” response. Cortisol can increase blood sugar, blood pressure, and anxiety. Physiologic changes happen to people when they’re “stressed.” Cortisol responses have been used to assess the intensity of separation distress and/or to examine that the presence of a partner may provide a form of social buffering. Our family members are in distr