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Coronavirus: Britons saying final goodbyes to dying relatives by videolink

The Guardian logo The Guardian 4 days ago Haroon Siddique and Sarah Marsh
a truck that is driving down the street: Photograph: Ian Forsyth/Getty Images © Provided by The Guardian Photograph: Ian Forsyth/Getty Images

People are having to use videolinks to say their last goodbyes to dying relatives with Covid-19 because hospitals are curtailing visits to prevent spread of the virus.

In a sad scene that is increasingly being played out out across the country, in the early hours of Tuesday morning a patient with coronavirus was taken off a ventilator at a hospital in south-east London.

His wife and two children were unable to be with him but watched at home via videolink, after agreement from staff in the intensive treatment unit.

A matron familiar with the case, who did not wish to be named, said the wife had been offered the opportunity of being there in person but without the children and at her own risk so she requested the family be able to watch it from home instead.

LONDON, ENGLAND - MARCH 23: A man walks past a Coronavirus warning sign outside the Royal Free hospital, on March 23, 2020 in London, United Kingdom. Coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic has spread to at least 182 countries, claiming over 10,000 lives and infecting hundreds of thousands more. (Photo by Leon Neal/Getty Images) © Getty LONDON, ENGLAND - MARCH 23: A man walks past a Coronavirus warning sign outside the Royal Free hospital, on March 23, 2020 in London, United Kingdom. Coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic has spread to at least 182 countries, claiming over 10,000 lives and infecting hundreds of thousands more. (Photo by Leon Neal/Getty Images)

The matron told the Guardian: “It is heartbreaking that he died without his family being able to hold his hands or giving him a goodbye kiss but at least they saw him in his final moments.

“If it’s something we [NHS staff] can do for people in this difficult crisis, it’s the least we can do. Not everybody can see or handle these things but giving that option to everybody is something we can do to perhaps make the pain go away. We know there are many more to come.”

She added that the family had found it to be a difficult experience but one that helped them to understand and accept what was happening.

With the UK believed to be some weeks away from the Covid-19 peak, the matron suggested now was the time to think about drafting in volunteers, with personal protective equipment, to provide a vital service for relatives, which overstretched healthcare workers will find increasingly difficult to facilitate.

Dr Rachel Clarke, a palliative care specialist, and author of Dear Life, said she was aware of such farewells and that coronavirus was “profoundly reshaping the experience of dying. Ordinarily, a crucial component of good palliative care is close, intimate, tender support of a patient at their bedside. The power of human touch, human presence, cannot be overestimated in conveying compassion, care and tenderness.

Doctor examines corona or covid-19 virus patient in the clean room with covid 19 and restricted area sign in front of the room © Getty Doctor examines corona or covid-19 virus patient in the clean room with covid 19 and restricted area sign in front of the room

“Yet coronavirus patients in intensive care cannot be visited by families - the infection risk is too great. That means loved ones are cut off from their families at precisely the time they need them most. Tablet, smartphones, videolinks of every kind are being used as alternatives to face to face contact, but of course cannot replace it.”

Dr Katie Sanderson, a junior doctor at a London hospital, said mobile phones – and chargers - were critical for Covid-19 patients to prevent them from being completely isolated from those emotionally closest to them.

“We currently have a policy of no visitors to most of the hospital that I work in,” she said. “I imagine this is likely to become a widespread policy. Because of this, it is important that any Covid patient has access to a charged phone so that they can be in communication with their relatives … I imagine we will need more basic phones as well as smartphones, as some people find these difficult to use, and cannot learn instantly.”

Rachel Power, chief executive of the Patients Association, said: “Having contact with loved ones at the end of life can be hugely important, and while doing it remotely might not be ideal, technology at least provides options for overcoming some of the problems arising from the highly contagious nature of coronavirus.”

Clarke said while technology was only a partial substitute for face-to-face contact relatives of dying patients should be reassured that staff were doing their best to make them feel loved.

“Crucially, families need to know how exceptionally seriously NHS staff take this vital aspect of palliative care,” she said. “You may be unable to visit your loved one in an intensive treatment unit (ITU), but I can guarantee that the ITU doctors and nurses will be as gentle, kind and tender as you could ever imagine.

“We love our patients and we want to do our utmost to ensure none of them feel frightened or alone, particularly at the end of life. We are your proxies, there at the bedside, striving to convey the love you long to share in person.”

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