As Coronavirus Claims More Lives, Hospitals Look for Creative Ways to Safely Say Goodbye

'After I found out he had coronavirus, I got myself tested. I wanted to be sick so they’d let me be with him, that’s all I wanted,' says one woman after her father died alone

Hagar Shezaf
Almog Ben Zikri
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A plexiglass case at Sheba Medical Center that enables relatives to part with deceased patients, April 2020.
A plexiglass case at Sheba Medical Center that enables relatives to part with deceased patients, April 2020. Credit: Tomer Appelbaum
Hagar Shezaf
Almog Ben Zikri

As the number of deaths from the coronavirus in Israel rise, hospitals are looking for solutions to allow family members to say their final goodbyes without risking their own infection. 

“Stories of patients who died alone shocked me as a human and as a [hospital] director,” head of ’s Ichilov Hospital Ronni Gamzu said Thursday, announcing that close family members will be permitted at the bedside of their loved ones in their final moments – after suiting up in protective gear.

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“It is our moral duty as medical personnel and as human beings. No person should have to die alone, and at Ichilov this will no longer happen. I believe that the rest of the world will follow in our footsteps, as it should,” Gamzu added.

Due to the worldwide shortage of protective equipment and the rise in the number of hospitalizations, Gamzu’s promise may be difficult or even impossible to keep.

The head of Bnei Brak’s Mayanei Hayeshua hospital said there is a critical shortage in protective suits and a “constant war” to replenish supplies. “We’re a small hospital in an area that is rife with the disease, and we have more people on ventilators than other places do,” said Prof. Mordechai Ravid.

Employees of Sheba Medical Center, Tel Hashomer, meanwhile, have come up with a different way to allow family members to see the bodies of their loved ones. They built a transparent box around a bed, placed at a viewing window. Prof. Haim Mayan, who heads the hospital’s intensive care unit for COVID-19 patients, said the decision to bar patients’ families from the department was meant to protect them from infection. “Families in such a situation are upset, naturally. What if someone tears out his hair or rips his clothing in a place that’s contaminated? They must be protected,” Mayan said.
Sheba put up what it calls a “family tent,” equipped with a computer with which family members can communicate with patients and receive updates from the medical team.

The coronavirus unit at the Sheba Medical Center in Tel HaShomer, Israel.
The coronavirus unit at the Sheba Medical Center in Tel HaShomer, Israel. Credit: Eyal Toueg

Officials at Haifa’s Rambam Medical Center said they are revisiting the ban on visiting COVID-19 patients in light of the policy shift at Tel Aviv’s Ichilov. Sagit Ze’evi, director of Rambam’s department of social work, said that the inability to be at the bedside makes it harder for family members to understand that their loved one is nearing death. “We allowed two families to see their loved ones over video call, with the help of a staff member,” she said, adding that in another case a staff member allowed a woman to speak to her father on the phone during his  final moments.

Talia, whose father, Shalom Michael Jackson, died of the virus Wednesday, said she hadn’t spoken with him in the days preceding his death because his phone had been taken away for disinfection. “I cannot forgive the fact that during his last days I had no communication with him,” Talia said. “I begged management [of the assisted living facility in Be’er Sheva where he lived] to let me speak with him.”

Talia was able to say goodbye to her father before he died, from a distance, in the hospital. “I told him that we love him and that we are here, and he raised his arm as though he heard us,” she said.

A coronavirus treatment unit at Ichilov hospital, Tel Aviv, March 19, 2020.
A coronavirus treatment unit at Ichilov hospital, Tel Aviv, March 19, 2020.Credit: Meged Gozani

Orit Chen, whose father Moshe Orenstein died of last week at Jerusalem’s Hadassah University Hospital, Ein Kerem, said she asked hospital staff several times to be allowed to say goodbye. Chen says she was told that this would only be possible if another patient agreed to hold her father’s cellphone while they talked on video call. “After I found out he had coronavirus, I got myself tested. I wanted to be sick so they’d let me be with him, that’s all I wanted,” said Chen, who added that she tested negative for the virus. At the end, with her father sedated and intubated, she spoke with him on video call. “I don’t know whether he heard me. I’m sorry [the call] didn’t happen two days earlier, that’s all I was asking for.”

Hadassah Medical Center announced Thursday morning that it would allow one visitor to be at the bedside of a patient in their final days, “in accordance with the directives to prevent the spread of the disease.” In other words, the visitor must wear protective gear or have tested positive for the coronavirus. Hadassah said video calls would be made available for anyone who cannot get to the hospital.

Officials from other hospitals around the country, including Shaare Zedek Medical Center in Jerusalem and Assaf Harofeh Hospital at Tzrifin, said they are examining new ways to foster communication between coronavirus patients and family members.

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