Her father was 83 years old, sweating and gasping for breath. Nancy Hopkins leaned down and rubbed his arm just before paramedics put him into an ambulance. “I’ll be with you every step of the way,” Ms. Hopkins promised him.
That was as close as she would ever again get to her dad. When she arrived at the nearby hospital in Conway, S.C., that evening in mid-March, she learned she could not go in because of visitor restrictions imposed during the coronavirus pandemic. She sat alone in her car in the hospital parking lot for hours, crying when she finally drove off.
Her father, Robert McCord, a retired livestock dealer, was sick with the coronavirus and lay for 14 days in an isolation room on the top floor of Conway Medical Center. When he neared death on April 1, Ms. Hopkins said goodbye through a phone, placed in a plastic bag and held to his ear by a nurse.
“It has been the biggest challenge of my life, knowing I couldn’t be there,” says Ms. Hopkins, who is 59 and a schoolteacher. “Because my father depended on me.”
A brutal hallmark of the pandemic is the way it isolates its victims even in their final moments. Patients die alone in hospital rooms, cut off from their spouses, children, siblings and often their pastors or rabbis. The emotional end-of-life moments, if they happen at all, unfold over an electronic tablet or phone, with a stranger serving as an intermediary.
“I struggle with saying words like ‘unfair,’ but that is what it really feels like,” says David “Michael” Dudley Jr. He said goodbye to his 61-year-old father, who was dying from the new coronavirus, over a Zoom videoconference on March 31. “You’re not only telling me my dad is not going to recover,” he says, “but I can’t even be there to say anything. I’ve got to do it in probably the most impersonal way possible.”
The elder Mr. Dudley, a charter bus driver, had woken up with a cough one week earlier and was on a ventilator in a Baltimore hospital. The younger Mr. Dudley, 36, didn’t know if his father could hear him, but he had things he wanted to say, mainly “I love you.” He strained to get the words out in the awkward group call with other relatives, and doctors and nurses in the hospital room.
“I squeezed one in at the end,” he says.
Louisville, Ky., family matriarch Keiko Neutz was rarely alone before the pandemic. Her huge family saw to that.
Ms. Neutz, widowed decades ago, raised eight children, at times working in an elementary-school cafeteria. She’d had a stroke five years ago, but still lived in her own house. One person in the family would stay with her, on a rotating schedule, every single night. Most of her children and 28 grandchildren lived within a 15-minute drive of her house.
She was 87 and stood just 4 feet 10 inches—a “spitfire,” as one of her grandchildren put it. If you missed a family gathering, you would expect a grilling from Ms. Neutz. She taught children’s Bible study and loved the slot machines at casinos. Nobody laughed harder at a practical joke.
Then came the shortness of breath that landed her in a hospital bed on March 25. She tested positive for Covid-19, was put on an oxygen machine and went downhill quickly. Two days later, on a Friday night, the family was forced to make a decision about whether to put her on a ventilator or not. Ms. Neutz had said not long ago that she didn’t want that. They had to be sure.
Six of her eight grown children, ages 52 to 64, drove separately to Norton Brownsboro Hospital in Louisville and gathered in the dimly lit parking lot, standing 6 feet apart to maintain a social distance.
The hospital allowed one of them to suit up in full protective gear, akin to a hazmat suit, and go into her room briefly. Daughter Kathy Mills, 62, entered to find Ms. Neutz weary but awake, lying on her side with one arm extended off the bed.
Ms. Mills looked out at her from behind an N95 respirator mask, and a second mask atop that, and safety goggles. Wearing two pairs of blue hospital gloves, she grabbed her mother’s hand.
“I’m sorry I can’t kiss you,” she told her mom through tears.
Did she want to go to heaven, she asked her mother.
Ms. Neutz nodded, and gestured to the medical equipment in the room. “This is too much,” she said softly.
Ms. Mills went back out to the parking lot, and a nurse called down and let each sibling say goodbye by FaceTime right then. Debbie Taylor, another daughter, ached listening to her siblings’ intimate goodbyes.
“We couldn’t hug each other,” she says. “It was unnatural. Normally, we would have been crying on each other’s shoulders.”
Ms. Neutz made it into the weekend. Granddaughter Lacy Taylor, 29, delivered a laptop loaded with the social networking app Houseparty to the hospital. A nurse set it up facing Ms. Neutz’s bed, essentially giving the family a live feed into the hospital room.
Debbie Taylor spotted the nurses in their protective gear in the room, and wondered what her mom thought. “Do these Covid patients think there are aliens in the rooms?” she recalls thinking.
The family sang and talked to her. Ms. Neutz would reach out to touch the screen when her great-grandchildren came into the picture. Relatives were watching as she took her final breath at 7:45 a.m. Monday.
Nurses Audrey Waters and Julia Hunt were each holding one of Ms. Neutz’s hands as she died. Ms. Waters, 33, had worked overnight but stayed past her shift because she and Ms. Hunt had promised the family they wouldn’t let Ms. Neutz be alone.
“I felt blessed to be able to be there,” says Ms. Hunt, who is 28. “But it absolutely ripped my heart out as well.”
Near Toledo, Ohio, nurse Helen Revesz says she has never been through anything like this during her 35 years in the profession. Previously, when someone was dying, she would call the family so they could be in the room. Relatives would both comfort the patient and commune and mourn with one another.
Ms. Revesz recently, in a first for her, arranged a FaceTime video call so grown children could say goodbye to their father, who was dying of Covid-19. “It’s hard,” she says. “You put yourself in their place.”
Such video calls have become so necessary for patients and their families in the Covid-19 crisis that Littleton Adventist Hospital in Colorado is aiming to have an iPad in every room shortly, says Stephen Guyer, the hospital’s chaplain.
And Covid Tech Connect, a nonprofit set up in March, is aiming to eventually put 10,000 tablets in hospitals and nursing homes. So far, about 2,500 donated tablets have been pledged, and the group has raised more than $125,000 toward a $1 million goal. The first shipments were set to go out by the end of this week.
Sara Rodell, one of the group’s founders, says she was inspired by a text message on March 27 from a friend who is a nurse who needed help sourcing tablets that would allow dying patients to say goodbye to their families. “This just really got me,” says Ms. Rodell.
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Some of the Covid-19 patients seem unaware they are isolated, while others understand, says the Rev. Michael Mercier, the director of spiritual care for Lifespan, a health system in Rhode Island. “I have never seen as many patients cry when I am praying with them,” he says, adding that they feel cut off from family.
There and at many hospitals, the chaplains now often pray at patients’ doors to avoid picking up the virus.
Rabbi Jason Kirschner, the staff chaplain at Mount Sinai Hospital in New York, recently got a request from a family to do a Vidui, a Jewish prayer of confession, which usually is recited by a rabbi or family member if the dying person is unable to do so.
He and volunteers scrambled on a weekend to find a Jewish doctor who could go into the room and perform the deathbed rite. “This is not something doctors typically do,” the rabbi says. “It’s just a very difficult time.”
As Tim Funk’s 89-year-old mother lay dying from the new coronavirus in St. Elizabeth Ft. Thomas Hospital in Kentucky on Apr. 2, the family wondered whether a chaplain could be found to give her one final blessing.
The nurses said their policy barring visitors included priests, but if the family could find a priest right away, a nurse would go into his mother’s room with an iPad and coordinate a video call.
It was 9:45 p.m., and Mr. Funk, a former religion reporter, was almost 500 miles away in Charlotte, N.C. He called Father Frank O’Rourke, a retired pastor of St. Gabriels Catholic Church in Charlotte. Within 10 minutes, a nurse called Father O’Rourke from Mrs. Funk’s bedside. He recited a prayer, while nurses, dressed in protective clothing, tended to Mrs. Funk.
A nurse told Mr. Funk that his mother died minutes after the blessing. “I don’t know if the nurse was trying to make me feel better,” he says. “But we are choosing to believe her.”
In Conway, S.C., that same week, it pained critical-care nurse Kelli Culclasure to see Covid-19 patient Robert McCord nearing death alone. Even sedated and hooked to a ventilator, the elderly man had a face that radiated friendliness, she thought.
In fact, Mr. McCord was a people person. The widower had coffee with his daughter every afternoon, notched near perfect attendance at church and didn’t even have to order when he sat down at his favorite diner on Main Street every Saturday. The servers knew what he wanted: Sausage, eggs and grits.
On the morning of Wednesday, April 1, Ms. Culclasure, a nurse for 34 years, put a hospital-staff mobile phone in a plastic bag to keep it sterile. She took out a list of numbers she had collected from the family.
And then, one by one, she called Mr. McCord’s son, his two daughters—including Nancy Hopkins, who had brought him to the hospital—his brother and a close family friend to let them say goodbye. She held the bagged phone to her patient’s ear and watched his face.
“I hope this man hears this,” she thought to herself. “I hope these voices are his last memory.”
When she finished the phone calls, she leaned down and touched his shoulder with one gloved hand.
“Don’t be afraid,” she told him. She and another nurse stayed with him until he died.
An hour later, four siblings in a different family were about to go through the same ritual.
Just after noon in Ohio, Nick Ramos saw that his sister had posted to their family group chat. A nurse in a hospital room with their father wanted to set up a FaceTime video call.
The father, Joe Ramos, 73, was in ProMedica Bay Park Hospital in Oregon, Ohio, dying from Covid-19.
Nick Ramos, 42, was in Hollywood, Calif., where he lives. His three siblings, who all live within an hour’s drive of the hospital, felt it wasn’t safe to visit because they were concerned about exposure to the virus.
The siblings took turns saying goodbye.
When Mr. Ramos’s time came, he saw his father struggling to keep his eyes open. He heard the machines keeping him alive. He filled that final conversation with small talk until he ran out of words.
Then the nurse turned the camera on herself. Mr. Ramos saw her head-to-toe protective suit, including a face mask and a helmet.
“That’s when the reality of everything set in,” he says. He raced to say his final words to his father. “My heart just exploded and anything and everything I could thank him for came gushing out.”
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