Written by Donora Death Fog, Just Me

The Pain of Dying Alone

One of the saddest days of my nursing career happened when I made shift rounds and found that an elderly patient was in the throes of death, alone. I didn’t know him, but I stayed with him until his final breath. No one should have to die alone. But with COVID-19, they are and will continue to die with no loved ones nearby.

I’ve just read a New York Times article by an ICU physician called, “When You Die of the Coronavirus, You Die Alone.” It is a heartrending look at the final days of COVID-19 patients whose family members are being blocked from being with their loved one in their greatest time of need for fear of spreading the virus.

The article made me think of the smog victims in Donora that dreary October weekend in 1948. Eleven of the victims were married at the time of their death, and because families back then were so close I want to believe that most of them died with family by their side. We know that Bernardo Di Sanzi died with his loving wife, Liberata, by his side. Many others, though, were single or otherwise alone. Did they die alone? I hope not.

In the article the physician, Daniela Lamas, explores the pain of a policy that must be implemented for the greater good. “Here in my hospital,” she writes, “as in so many others throughout the country, we’ve banished most visitors. It’s a tough decision that leaves our patients to suffer through their illnesses in a medical version of solitary confinement. And I’m worried for them. Because those of us on the front lines simply don’t have a plan for this.”

The attitudes about allowing families to remain with extremely ill patients changed over time, particularly during the last twenty or so years of the twentieth century. Rather than preventing family from entering a critically ill patient’s room, we realized the health benefits that come from a husband’s touch, a wife’s soothing voice, a child’s smile. Since that time most hospitals have welcomed families with open arms.

But this damn virus is changing that. Dr. Lamas told one couple, the wife on a respirator in the unit, that her loving husband couldn’t visit anymore, that the visit today would be the last. Listen to the pain in her voice about what happened the next day.

I entered the unit, headed to my patient’s room. She was awake already, breathing quickly on the ventilator, eyes wide. When she saw me, she started to mouth words. Her husband would have been able to understand, but her lips moved quickly and I had no idea what she was trying to say. She soon grew frustrated. “I’m sorry,” I told her. But she was done. She closed her eyes and turned away, toward the empty chair next to her bed. I apologized once more and then, as my pager summoned me down the hall, I stepped from the room, leaving her alone.

Hug your loved ones today. With this deadly, despicable virus on the loose, who knows what tomorrow will bring?

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