They come in alone.
Patients taken to the hospital in these days of COVID-19 restrictions are not followed by an entourage of worried family and friends prepared to keep bedside vigils.
It’s scarier now being sick. Lonelier. More distressing.
Patients battling COVID-19 are especially isolated, struggling to breathe and to understand what is happening to them as gowned medical teams flutter about, faces masked, hands sheathed.
Nurses, doctors, respiratory therapists, techs and other hospital workers on the front lines are the only, sometimes the last, links to the world beyond a COVID-19 patient’s sick, solitary sojourn.
Without family there, they are also a patient’s stand-in family, their task not only to save that patient’s life but to provide comfort and support and humanity.
“We’re all very emotionally involved in this crisis,” said James Underhill, a nurse in the medical intensive care unit at the University of New Mexico Hospital. “Many of our patients are nervous, very sick. They’re surrounded by confusing machines. It’s very disorienting. So it requires our extra effort to do what we can to make them more comfortable. Nurses have had to be very creative in how to do that.”
And this is where you, dear readers, come in.
The hospital staff is asking you to care enough to send the very best – a greeting card, a get-well card, a note of good cheer to the COVID-19 patients at UNMH.
“It’s a really simple thing, but how it could help is major,” Underhill said. “It lets our patients know that people care about them. It’s something to remind them that they are not forgotten, that there is a world they can look forward to being a part of again.”
The cards should include a note of encouragement and inspiration, perhaps a few short details of the sender’s life, a kind thought, a bit of normalcy in these abnormal times.
In other words, these get-well cards should be something you would send to someone you care about – because we all should.
The cards will be displayed in patient rooms or an area where patients can see them, UNMH spokesman Mark Rudi said.
The idea had been bounced around by nurses and was set into motion by Felicia Hoffman, director of the medical ICU, Underhill said.
“It’s the notion that we recognize that our patients are having such a hard time that we wanted something we thought would support our patients,” he said. “And when our patients do better, we do better.”
That’s more important than ever. The medical ICU at UNMH has 24 beds, all of them filled with patients who have tested positive for COVID-19 and are critically ill. Most of them are on ventilators.
None of those beds have been empty for long.
“We are completely full,” Underhill said.
Patients who are sick but whose tests have not yet confirmed COVID-19 fill the beds in the trauma surgical care unit; patients who require intensive care but are not believed to have the virus fill the neuroscience ICU, he said.
Which is to say, an intensive care worker’s job is a very busy one.
Without family members allowed, and with patients intubated and as sick as they are, those jobs are even busier. To make their patients comfortable beyond the sedative and ventilator, staff members make calls and research what they can about the patient’s likes and dislikes.
“It takes extra effort, but it’s worth it,” Underhill said.
Is there a certain kind of music they like? Is there a TV show they watch? That can be accommodated.
Underhill remembers the patient who liked his hair combed just so, the young patient who wanted to hear her mother’s voice, the patient who wanted to hear a loved one on Underhill’s cellphone read passages from the Bible as death descended.
It’s a hard, emotionally wrenching, physically gut-punching job these folks on the front lines do. But at least for now there seems a good supply of masks, gowns, gloves, ventilators, Underhill said. He feels safe, he said. He feels part of a team he proudly said is doing the best they can for their patients under extraordinary circumstances. He feels supported by a grateful community.
“As a staff, we do feel well taken care of,” he said. “But we’d like to see if we could shift the focus in some way so that the community can help support our COVID-19 patients. We’d like to give them some hope.”
If we as a community can send hope in an envelope, if we can lighten the load of a sick fellow human and an overworked health care worker, a get-well card seems little to ask.
UpFront is a front-page news and opinion column. Reach Joline at 730-2793, firstname.lastname@example.org, Facebook or @jolinegkg on Twitter.