As Dr. Ben Moor wandered the halls of the South Shore hospital where he works over the past year, the closed doors separating COVID-19 patients from the world outside weighed heavily on his mind.
“Behind every door, a person with COVID-19. Alone,” Moor wrote in a recent op-ed for STAT. “They see their nurse periodically. A food service worker comes in three times a day with a tray of food. Other than that, no human contact.”
But these days, Moor — an anesthesiologist at Beth Israel Deaconess Hospital-Plymouth — is breaking through these barriers. After receiving his second dose of the COVID-19 vaccine last month, he saw an opening, a way to bring comfort to people in quarantine and be a liaison to their anxious families, waiting desperately to be by their side.
Taking advantage of his vaccinated status, Moor began stopping into patients’ rooms — clad in personal protective equipment (PPE) from head to toe — to sit with them briefly and check in. The gesture sparked an idea: assemble a group of fully vaccinated hospital workers to spend time with COVID-19 patients, people longing for human connection.
“This dying alone business just seemed so wrong from a human point of view. But we put up with it for 10 months because we had to,” Moor said in an interview. “But all of the sudden we don’t have to. We don’t have to just get in and out and do the medical thing. We can go in and we can safely spend a little bit of time there.”
Moor, who at times has been on the front lines of the pandemic, intubating people with severe cases of the respiratory illness, first decided to visit patients when he found himself with some rare downtime during a 24-hour shift in January. He had been feeling a renewed sense of purpose since being immunized, knowing that along with PPE, he was at minimal risk of transmitting or contracting the virus.
“I thought, ‘You know what, let’s go and have a look. Let’s go talk to some nurses and see what’s going on,’” Moor, 51, recalled. “And then I said, ‘Do you mind if I kind of go in and sit with them?’ And the nurse said, ‘Ya, go ahead.’”
He started seeing a few patients at first — ones that weren’t even his — before and after his shifts. He would sit with them, give them a hand to squeeze, and exchange small talk. He would make sure they were comfortable and fill the empty void in the room.
Later, he would reach out to their families, who are unable to visit, and update them on their loved one’s status.
“There’s something important just about being there,” Moor said. “Hand-holding through a glove is as close as we can get, but I think that’s not bad.”
Moor, a London native and father of three, mentioned his visits to some colleagues. Soon after, he wondered if more people would be willing to join him. With permission from Kevin Coughlin, president of Beth Israel Deaconess Hospital–Plymouth, Moor sent out a hospital-wide e-mail..
“I am putting out a call for fully VACCINATED VOLUNTEERS to join me in being a conduit between patients and families,” Moor wrote. “As vaccinated healthcare professionals, we are now in a unique, privileged position to provide support to sick Covid patients and their families.”
He included a list of goals and requirements: Volunteers had to be at least 10 days past their second vaccination; full PPE had to be worn at all times; and participants would work with the same patient and family throughout their hospital stay.
Almost immediately, staff from all over the hospital started reaching out, eager to join the “Vaccinated Volunteers.”
“We wouldn’t do this if the family was there,” Moor said. “But I think that day will come in the next few months. In the meantime, we can do something about it.”
Mickey South, a registered nurse at the hospital, was among the staff members who answered Moor’s e-mail. She had battled a mild case of COVID-19..
“I knew how it felt to be quarantined and not be able to go anywhere or have people come visit you,” she said.
During visits with one patient, South said, they talked about family and the weather. Later, South helped set up an emotional FaceTime visit between the woman and her son.
“He was so happy just to see his Mom,” South recalled. “At the end of the conversation he said to her, ‘I love you, Mom,’ and I thought my heart was going to drop. For him to have that face-to-face interaction meant so much to him, and when he said that to her — just that smile on her face, I could see the look in her eyes.”
Moor keeps the project simple. With the help of a colleague, he tracks which volunteers are eligible on a spreadsheet. He then pairs up volunteers and assigns them to a “pod” of rooms at the hospital, he said. A nurse in that pod directs them to any patient who might benefit from visitors. It’s all done in their spare time.
Since the pilot program began, dozens of hospital volunteers have signed up and in some cases are visiting patients with illnesses other than COVID-19.
Dr. Paul Sax, clinical director of the division of Infectious Diseases at Brigham and Women’s Hospital, said that given the vaccine’s effectiveness, along with the protective wear, the personal visits are “quite safe.”
“And overall an incredibly kind and humane thing to do,” Sax said by e-mail. “The isolation of people with Covid-19, especially at the end of life, is one of the most heartbreaking things about this pandemic.”
Moor said he hopes the idea will take root and perhaps inspire other hospitals to set up a similar program.
While the visits are a comfort to the isolated patients, the “gold” is the reassurance it offers the families, who are often left anxiously wondering how a loved one is doing day-to-day.
Jim Rubenacker and his wife, Irene, went to Beth Israel Deaconess Hospital-Plymouth in late January, after they both tested positive for COVID-19. Jim was sent home from the emergency department the same day, but Irene remained for six days.
During her stay, a vaccinated nurse became their lifeline, bonding with Irene and touching base each day with Jim, who was at home sick and terrified of losing his wife.
“She was just such a blessing,” said Jim. “Whether it was personal belongings, or making sure flowers I’d arranged got to her room — Irene even had some cravings for a chocolate milkshake and [the nurse] went on her own time and brought it up to Irene. She carried the torch perfectly.”
Early in his own visits, Moor came to know a father of two children. He connected with the man’s wife frequently, sharing stories about their chats, updates that helped ease her mind during the week that he was there.
Those texts and calls, said Kerri Kenneally, became a beacon for her family, right up to the day that Moor walked with her husband out of the hospital when he was discharged.
“He was just, in a sense, my guardian angel,” she said of Moor.