The devastating image of the lonely deaths of coronavirus patients in Italy hangs over us all. Talking with one of the nurse practitioners in our hospital’s new Covid-19 I.C.U. one recent night, I asked what worried her most. “Patients dying alone,” she replied quickly.
A doctor next to her nodded in sad agreement. On a recent shift, he had intubated an elderly husband and wife, both of whom had severe respiratory failure from coronavirus. Their daughter asked if she could come in to see them. Though we will make exceptions for many end-of-life visits, in this case, he had to say no — they all lived together, the daughter had a fever herself, and as a result could risk infecting other hospitalized patients. Which means that if her parents die of this, they will do so in separate sterile hospital rooms, far from anyone who loves them.
So it’s up to us, the health care workers who are seeing these patients at the front lines, to find ways to maintain connection, to balance our fear with tenderness. This won’t be easy. I think of myself as the kind of doctor who sits at a bedside, who holds a hand, who explains what is going on slowly and gently even to my intubated patients because I can’t know what they will remember. I want to be the doctor who is always willing to spend a few extra minutes despite being stressed or rushed.