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With iPads, Concord’s Emerson Hospital connects loved ones with patients suffering from coronavirus

A patient with COVID-19 in Emerson Hospital’s Critical Care Unit connected with loved ones via an iPad. Shown with the patient on the left is Jess Tellier, RN, and on the right is Lee Holbrook, clinical social work supervisor.
A patient with COVID-19 in Emerson Hospital’s Critical Care Unit connected with loved ones via an iPad. Shown with the patient on the left is Jess Tellier, RN, and on the right is Lee Holbrook, clinical social work supervisor.Tommi Gill-Sammet/Emerson Hospital

Cheryl Grenier, a postal worker, began coughing and feeling overwhelmingly exhausted the same day she tested positive for coronavirus in April. Her husband, George, tended to her sudden fever as the pair self-isolated in their Harvard home.

About a week after his wife’s initial symptoms, George Grenier, 70, started to feel sick, too. An ambulance transported him to Emerson Hospital in Concord, where he tested positive for coronavirus.

“He called my mom to tell her he was given the choice whether he wanted to go on a ventilator or not,” said their daughter, Megan Gruman. “He was told at that point there was a less than 50 percent chance [of survival]. Obviously if he didn’t go on a ventilator it would be a lot less than that.”

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Grenier was immediately sedated, then ventilated. Despite their distance, his wife and daughters spoke to him every day — about his adored dog Maisey, his grandchildren — via FaceTime on an iPad at his hospital bedside.

He died a week later.

Prior to the pandemic, Emerson Hospital reserved iPads for telehealth services in the emergency room and translation services. Now, families communicate through them with patients who are ill with COVID-19 — in some cases, to say goodbye.

Lee Holbrook, a social worker at Emerson, said family members initially felt skeptical about FaceTiming with loved ones in the hospital.

“I can think of a particular patient in the [Critical Care Unit] that was intubated. The daughter and wife weren’t really sure if they wanted to see him or not [in that state]."

Social workers prepared Grenier’s family ahead of time — describing what he would look like, the machines crowded around him, and what staff would be standing nearby.

“We know it’s important, especially during a crisis like this, for people to lay eyes on their family members,” Holbrook said. “The daughter decided to do it first. Once they got used to it, they were really, really receptive to it.”

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Jess Tellier, a registered nurse in Emerson’s CCU, described a sense of relief among her co-workers.

“There’s a sense of being present. With the iPad, you can at least see [your loved one] and feel like you’re being present with them,” Tellier said. “If we can’t have the in-person experience, then I’d rather have something.”

According to Tellier, she asks the family member on the iPad if they want a few minutes alone with their loved one. Do they want her to stay with the patient? Do they have any questions? Does anything about the patient or their condition need to be explained?

A typical day pre-pandemic for Holbrook’s team of social workers included calling family members to meet with a patient and discuss care with doctors and nurses at their bedside.

iPads are now used for family virtual visits and palliative care consultation. A physician may join the call to approach end of life decision-making.

“The goal, especially if the patient is positive for COVID, is to reduce the amount of in and out,” Holbrook said. “Ideally we just have [the iPad] stay in the room with the patient. But, the sicker a person is, the harder it is from them to just answer a call.”

The Emerson staff has shown creativity in an attempt to make the best out of a grim situation. One patient, edging toward the end of his life, wanted to watch “The Three Stooges.”

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“A social worker got the iPad, got on Youtube, and put it on,” Holbrook said. “We got another iPad so his sister could kind of look through and see him, just see how happy he was.”

After her father’s passing, Gruman asked Holbrook if the hospital could use more iPads. She said she knew her community would be quick to fulfill the need for families and patients to communicate.

“I sent the hospital two iPads, then I also posted all over social media,” Gruman said. “It was just a request I haven’t seen yet. I sent out all the information [about Emerson] to raise awareness.”

Gruman said she knew about eight iPads were donated because of responses to her post. An Emerson public relations manager called letting her know Emerson received over 80.

“Nothing is really going to replace holding somebody’s hand or feeling their hair,” Gruman said. “But, it was nice to know or believe that he could at least hear us talking to him up until the end. The thought that may have brought him comfort was comforting.”

Grenier passed away April 17. He spent his final day listening to his wife and children remind him how much he was loved.

Stefania Lugli can be reached at stefania.lugli@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @steflugli.