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‘It’s really a gift’: Israeli hospitals let relatives say goodbye in person

JERUSALEM — A few people had already died alone of the coronavirus at Tel Aviv’s Sourasky Medical Center when the hospital spokesman put to his bosses a question that had been gnawing at him.

Why had it been permissible for him to let a few journalists put on protective gear and come see the coronavirus ward, the spokesman, Avi Shushan, asked, but families of the patients were being kept out, denied the chance to bid their loved ones a final farewell?

No one had a good answer.

Across the globe, hospitals have been reflexively refusing relatives the opportunity to visit patients dying of COVID-19, fearful that family members could contract the virus at the hospital or that relatives might unwittingly carry the virus with them when saying their goodbyes, infecting hospital staff.

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Shortages of personal protective equipment have only added to the reasons for rejecting deathbed visits.

A New England Journal of Medicine article last week lamented the dilemma for hospitals and described “creative workarounds,” like nurses holding phones up to patients’ ears or using their own smartphones to let relatives see patients over Skype, WhatsApp, or FaceTime. But it said these stopgaps sometimes ran afoul of privacy rules or poor connectivity, and called for new national guidance.

Faced with the question from the hospital spokesman, Ronni Gamzu, the chief executive at Sourasky, said Israeli hospitals were neither so overrun, nor their supplies of masks and gowns so depleted, that compassion had to be another casualty of the crisis.

The hospital’s management committee unanimously voted to change its policy.

Elisheva Stern, 42, got a call from the hospital a few days later at her home in Bnei Brak. Her father, Simcha Ben-Shay, 75, was on his deathbed. Did she want to come see him?

Stern hesitated; she has seven children of her own, and feared infecting them. But the hospital promised to cover her in protective gear. She called her rabbi, who urged her to go. And so she went.

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“None of us want to say bye to our family,” Stern said. “But it’s really a gift.”

The hospital’s revised policy, which several other Israeli hospitals have now also embraced, limits visits to one or two relatives per patient and a half-hour at bedside. Most are in and out in 15 minutes or less, officials said.

At her father’s bedside, outfitted head to toe, peering at him through a clear plastic mask, Stern said the Shema, the Jewish declaration of faith. She recited confessional prayers on her father’s behalf. And she told her father that she loved him.

He died overnight.

Stern said she and her father, a retired diamond dealer, had for years shared lunch a few times every week. A few weeks ago, he seemed disoriented on the phone, and she worried he might have had a stroke. She never suspected the virus.

Stern said she feels more and more grateful for the 10 minutes she spent at his bedside.

“Just to see my father’s face,” she said, “it just looked like my father sleeping. It kind of gives it a better closure, rather than, you know, the person just disappears from your life.”

Gamzu said allowing deathbed visits did not just benefit the relatives, it provided an enormous psychological relief to hospital workers.

“Imagine the stress and emotional burden on people who see the patient dying, and the relatives are outside, and you have only a remote connection with them,” he said. “Once you let the relatives in, then you let your staff disconnect a little bit.”

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