During the coronavirus pandemic to keep patients, staff and visitors safe and reduce the spread of COVID-19, hospitals across Canada instituted no visitor policies for all patients, unless there was a special circumstance.
That means across the country tens of thousands of patients could not see their family members in person. That is concerning as a lack of social interaction and isolation can have a negative impact on physical and mental health.
Many patients turned to their smartphones, computers and tablets to connect with loved ones. For some patients, a lack of access to that kind of technology led to more isolation.
North York General Hospital (NYGH) in Toronto started its limited family presence policy on March 20. That is when its team got creative, developing a plan to keep patients connected with their families and communities.
It’s called the Virtual Family Visit program. Using 100 iPads donated by the hospital’s foundation, staff is facilitating video visits at the main hospital site and its long-term care facility. Close to 600 patients and residents can access the service, seven days a week.
“To have that connection with their network of family, friends and with the community outside the walls of the hospital makes a world of difference,” Shana Haberman, Patient- and Family-Centred Care Consultant at NYGH told Global News.
“We literally see patients light up when the iPad is brought into the room and they see their loved ones on the other side of the screen.”
Sarah Carney usually works as an Elder Life Specialist at NYGH. During the pandemic she has been redeployed to work as a facilitator in the Virtual Family Visit Program, armed with her iPad Carney connects families and patients.
“Just seeing the smile on their face or the patient’s face light up as soon as they see their family members, it’s been really rewarding to see,” Carney told Global News.
It’s not just for comfort. Families and the support they deliver are important aspects of a patient’s overall health and recovery.
“Our patients that are often facing health issues or perhaps in a health crisis would normally rely a lot on their family support,” Carney said. “Especially in our senior population, rates of delirium and functional decline are quite high, and families are really integral in helping those patients not to develop delirium or other problems in hospital.”
Marija Kramer is being cared for at NYGH following a stroke. Her family is additionally concerned as English is not her first language. With Carney’s help and the iPad, Kramer beams as her family sings and plays the accordion and shows her videos of her great-granddaughter.
Her family points out that since she suffered her stroke, her speech is impaired, so to be able to see her is “tremendous” and is making a “huge difference” in terms of how much they worry and they can monitor her health and progress.
Bruno De Piero says when he first came to NYGH fighting an infection it was scary to be alone without his family.
“It’s very hard in the critical moments to not have anyone around,” Di Piero told Global News.
He is feeling much better now and on a video call, his family jokes about what kind of food they will make when De Piero gets home. His grandson tells him he hopes his soccer will start again in mid-July. De Piero drives his grandson to soccer and is excited for it to start.
“It’s changed my mind. You started thinking of other things. I think about him, about that soccer game,” De Piero told Global News. “I see everybody is healthy, everybody is good. Now I am at peace.”
Considering this program is being run during a pandemic the hospital has put into place strict protocols, according to Haberman. This includes how to clean and disinfect the devices to make sure that patients and staff are safe and even using plastic bags to cover the devices, she said.
Edith Mozes is 91-years-old. Her family members are joining the video call from Ontario and California.
Mozes is the matriarch of her family. Her nephew Andrew Benedek tells Global News that Mozes was one of seven children born in a small town in Hungary. She, along with three sisters, survived the Holocaust and all immigrated to Canada.
“She was loving and generous to all of us, like a mom,” Benedek said. “Now that our moms are no longer alive. She is the only thing we have.”
He added if they could not see their aunt on the video calls they would be “going out of [their] minds without it.”
Mozes smiles, waves and lights up when she sees her family. Her nephew Robert Zicherman tells Global News this is very helpful for the whole family.
“To see that she is alert and improving. Under the circumstances, this is the best thing that the hospital or anyone could do,” Zicherman said.
Simon Greene also finds calls with his grandchildren and wife to be a wonderful distraction. The former educator and coach has recovered from being sick with COVID-19. He has not seen his wife of more than 54 years since mid-March — it’s tough for both of them and their family.
“You can’t go on in life without seeing somebody you know or communicating. The phone isn’t enough. You have to be able to see them,” Helene Greene, Simon’s wife, told Global News.
Simon says the video calls have been a lifeline.
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“If it wasn’t for that, I would not be able to see her at all,” Simon said. “She’s my heart.”
Hospital staff and facilitators like Carney say the program and being actively involved with families has made a difference for her as well.
“Ever since I started in this new role, I just find it so meaningful,” Carney said. “Even when I am not at work, I’m thinking about the patients here, how they’re doing and thinking what their family members, how they’re doing as well.”
© 2020 Global News, a division of Corus Entertainment Inc.