UK HealthCare

iPads Give the Gift of Family Visits During COVID-19 Hospital Restrictions

Jennifer Wirtz l UK HealthCare Video

LEXINGTON, Ky. (June 11, 2020) — Lying in the hospital and feeling at your worst, you want only to be with the people you love the most – but they are not allowed to visit. Patients in hospitals around the world faced this difficult truth as the coronavirus settled into towns and cities in nearly every country.

When Sarah Lester, director of nursing professional practice and excellence, found out that UK HealthCare had to restrict visitation in order to protect patients, their families and staff members, she was inspired to find a solution.

“It hurt my heart,” she said. “I know if I was in the hospital and not able to have my family with me, how anxious that would make me and how lonely I would be.”

Lester petitioned the UK HealthCare Hospital Auxiliary for an emergency grant allocation to obtain iPads for conducting video calls with patients and their loved ones. Fortunately, an anonymous donor had recently given 20 iPads to Kentucky Children’s Hospital.

“We used two of the donated iPads for a couple of weeks, doing Facetime calls only until we were able to get two newer ones – with the help of the Office of Patient Experience and Information Technology Services – so that we could also support Android calls,” Lester said, pointing out that the donated iPads were not compatible with Android devices.

Social workers Amanda Muse and Lauren Sawyer from the Markey Cancer Center were redeployed to take these iPads to inpatients (non-COVID patients) so that they could talk to their family members face-to-face.

“I think talking to your loved one on the phone and hearing their voice is reassuring, but being able to see that they’re well and to check on their well-being when you can’t see them in person just adds another dimension of comfort,” Lester said.

Sawyer and Muse quickly realized that the need for this service was greater than what they could provide during their shifts. Lauren Quigley, NCT, from preoperative care at the Kentucky Clinic, joined the effort, working three weeknights and on the weekends.

A miracle every day

With each encounter, Muse, Sawyer and Quigley witness the immense joy and hope that this service brings to patients and their families. Muse remembered a patient who one day was unable to communicate other than by blinking her eyes. The next day was a different story.

“I went in there and she spoke her first words,” Muse said. “Her husband said, ‘I love you,’ and she said, ‘I love you too,’ and you could hear the awes from her family that was on the call. That was really rewarding to be a part of.”

“It almost makes you want to cry, because I feel like every day we see a miracle,” added Sawyer, who had assisted the same patient.

“We’ve seen people start on the vent and then get off the vent, and people you thought it was going to take them weeks to even say their first word or recognize somebody, and then you walk in and they’re sitting up in a chair talking,” Quigley said.

Even for those patients who are unable to verbally communicate (they must still be able to provide consent in a nonverbal manner), the service offers comfort for their family members.

“Probably half of our patients can’t even speak, or are intubated, and the family member tells us, ‘I just want to see them to see that they’re OK,’” Quigley said.

“[The patient may be] really confused, and then when they hear or see their family member, you can see them come-to or remember or have some moment of clarity,” Muse added. “I think that’s a miracle in itself, and I know it’s reassuring for family members who are on the other side of that screen.”

“[The family is] not always expecting the call, but when they answer, they get so excited,” Sawyer added. “There’s one guy I call with the nurse practitioner every day, and he’s like, ‘Thank you for the updates; thank you for letting me see and talk to my dad.’ Everyone’s so grateful.”

Improving patient care

The health care teams have also been grateful for the video chat service.

“Doctors know family members want updates, so there’s been several times we’ll go in there and the doctor will talk to [the patient’s] family member and let them know what’s going on,” Quigley said.

“Some nurses will follow us in just to see the outcome; they’re just as excited and rooting for us to have a successful conversation,” Muse said.

Future possibilities

The priceless gift this service has given to patients, along with the improved communication between providers and family members, brings to light the ways in which it can continue to be invaluable even after operations return to normal.

“I think the service we’re providing now, in some ways, parallels our child life program, so it would be really amazing to explore a partnership with the Office of Patient Experience to create a version of an adult life program to provide some of those same services, especially for the adults who don’t have family available but that maybe need companionship or continued video communications resources,” Lester said.

For many patients, family visits are difficult or not possible even under normal circumstances. Video calls can fill that gap.

“Some of [our patients] travel from so far that it’s not feasible for family to come or stay for the long term, [such as] if it is a transplant and they’re there for a month or two months,” Sawyer said. “Or for patients who come in from traumas and don’t have their phones. I had a patient who just had a baby, but she didn’t have her phone with her, so we were able to Facetime so she could see her baby.”

This service can also help physicians and nurses provide timely, important information about a patient’s status or post-discharge care.

“If a patient is from far away and somebody else is going to have to care for them when they go home and can’t be here for the discharge instructions, we can use the iPads to Facetime them and explain the instructions,” Quigley said. “Me and Lauren did a call like that, and I think it really helped them.”

“And there’s also vulnerable populations that may have other obligations and can’t come stay, or maybe they have small children and are the only caregivers, so I think that it’s been very beneficial to have these iPads so they can still be in communication without having to drop everything,” Muse added.

A bittersweet goodbye

Quigley, Sawyer and Muse are also thankful for the video chat service – for the chance to continue working.

“It’s a scary time and there’s so much unknown, but just to know that we did have a chance to be able to walk in the door and make that difference in someone’s life or someone’s day, I’m just grateful,” Sawyer said.

They all shared a sense of sadness that they will one day leave this job behind – one that has allowed them to connect deeply with patients and families – when they return to their former roles, but this experience has been an enlightening one for them.

“I think that whatever normal looks like when this is all over with, it puts into perspective what is truly important, and we’re not going to take anything for granted,” Muse said.

iPads give the gift of family visits during COVID-19 pandemic restrictions. Photo by Shaun Ring

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