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Tablets help families be “virtually” at the bedside

Social Worker Brianna Beck held a tablet for a patient in the hospital’s COVID-19 isolation unit to video chat with their family.

Social Worker Brianna Beck held a tablet for a patient in the hospital’s COVID-19 isolation unit to video chat with their family.

Thanks to a tablet, Sandra Deevy was ‘virtually’ at her dying mother’s bedside. She couldn’t physically be with her because her mother was receiving care in the COVID-19 isolation unit at The Ottawa Hospital. 

“To be honest, I wasn’t sure I wanted to do that—video chat with the tablet—not for my last memory. But I’m so glad I did,” said Sandra. “I did still get to see my mom, and most importantly to tell her we love her and to be comfortable and peaceful. That was so important.”

In mid-March, The Ottawa Hospital converted the surgery unit at the General Campus to the unit where  patients with COVID-19 are admitted. Along with all other hospitals in Ontario, it implemented a restricted visitor policy to help prevent the spread of the virus. Under normal circumstances, patients would have family coming in to visit. Now, the visitor policy allows one in-person visitor on compassionate grounds only, including when a patient is close to end of life. 

The COVID-19 unit at the hospital follows Infection Prevention and Control measures.  This means that anyone who enters the room must wear personal protective equipment (PPE): gloves, gowns, masks, and plexiglass visors.  Although necessary, the PPE can make it harder for the staff and patients to connect on a personal level. Still, staff feel a great deal of  sympathy for patients and families who are affected by the situation.

“We feel terrible for these patients without their loved ones here,” said Jan Leahy, Clinical Manager of Thoracic Surgery, ENT, Respirology—now the COVID-19 unit. “You can imagine if you haven’t seen your mother for six weeks, you want to see and talk to them.”

The Ottawa Hospital launched the COVID-19 Ideas Hub, asking employees for suggestions that could help the hospital continue to provide world-class care while keeping patients safe. A number of people, including nurses in the COVID-19 unit, suggested patients connect with family and friends using tablets.  In an era where most people are already digitally connected, this made sense.

The process is relatively straight forward.  A staff member such as a nurse or social worker will bring the tablet to the patient and connect them to their loved one’s device for a video conversation. Seeing each other is often better than a phone call.

“We’ve had patients who are COVID positive and are able to speak and talk to their families,” said Leahy. “We’ve also had patients who were dying. And we set up the tablets so the family could spend time with them in their last hours.”

In the case of Sandra’s 90-year-old mother, Joan Khan, Registered Nurse Brian Eng gowned up with PPE, put the tablet in a Ziploc bag and went into Joan’s room.

Brian Eng, a registered nurse
Brian Eng, a registered nurse at the Ottawa Hospital, is among the staff who help patients on the COVID-19 isolation unit connect with their families using a tablet.

“At first, I thought it would be kind of challenging to use the tablet with all the equipment on,” said Eng. “But having done it twice now, you start to see how impactful it is to the family to have that opportunity because they can’t be there in person. At least they can digitally be there.”

Joan was lying down. Eng held the tablet so Joan could comfortably see the screen. Sandra was pleased to see her mother wearing her own pink nightgown instead of a hospital gown. She knew her mother was being well taken care of.

“It’s a nice feeling to be able to bridge that connection, despite mileage,” said Eng. “Sandra could still have that one last moment, or talk, with her mom.”

Leahy agreed with Eng that it is a good way for patients to connect during this COVID-19 pandemic. In the future, it will also be a good option for people to connect when family members are far away and can’t be at their loved one’s bedside.  

“It was the second-best thing to being there,” Sandra said about her video chat with her mother. “I wouldn’t say or do anything any different than I did on the tablet—other than giving her a hug, of course.”


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