A week later, when his oxygen levels began to drop, Hurley watched from a distance as her husband James walked out of their house and got into an ambulance alone. Hurley followed behind in the family car as the ambulance took him to Beth Israel Deaconess Hospital in nearby Plymouth, Massachusetts.
“To drop my husband off in an ambulance at a hospital door and say, ‘I love you, but I don’t know if I’m going to see you again’ is terrifying,” Hurley said.
Hurley knew how fast a Covid-19 patient’s condition can deteriorate. She lost her grandmother to coronavirus in November, and saw her father and grandfather survive the disease.
So Hurley sat in her Jeep Wrangler in a dark and freezing hospital parking lot for the five days her husband was in the hospital, looking up at the patch of light that was her husband’s window. There, she could watch him when he got up to use the restroom and see the nurses attending to him.
After an initial uptick, James’s condition became worse, and he stopped being able to talk on the phone.
“I know that the hospital was so busy with so many patients and the nurses were working so hard, I couldn’t bother them,” Hurley said. “When he couldn’t talk to me, I was terrified because I didn’t know what was going to happen next.”
Instead, her lifeline became a doctor who was not assigned to her husband’s care.
Providing more than medical care for patients
Dr. Ben Moor had recently received his second dose of the Pfizer Covid-19 vaccine. After becoming fully vaccinated in early January, he had begun visiting Covid-19 patients at his hospital.
As an anesthesiologist, Moor has been intubating severely ill Covid-19 patients during the pandemic.
During what he describes as a “very, very medicalized process,” Moor began taking a moment right before intubation to think about the person in front of him.
“I kind of got this ritual of, you know, you hold the patient’s hand just briefly,” Moor said. “I think there’s a value and need to recognize this moment, that this might be the last interaction this person has. This might be the last hand that squeezes theirs.”
After making some initial impromptu visits to Covid patients, Moor emailed his hospital colleagues, asking if any of those who had been fully vaccinated would be willing to join him in making informal visits to Covid patients after their shifts ended.
Now, he has a spreadsheet with the names of 46 volunteers in what has become a pilot program that he runs with another hospital employee. Some of the volunteers are waiting become fully vaccinated, their names turning green on the spreadsheet after they receive their second dose and a follow-up waiting period.
Cheryl Carmody, an occupational therapist at the hospital, signed up immediately when she received Moor’s email, but was only cleared to volunteer a week and a half ago. Since then, she said she had visited three different patients.
Some patients want to talk or look at photos of pets and family members. Others would rather watch television with the volunteer sitting in the room, Carmody and Moor said.
As an occupational therapist, part of Carmody’s duties include helping Covid-19 patients prepare for the physical challenge of returning home.
“Talk with them is the most important thing we can do. Let them know that we’re here to show compassion, and we can be in there with them as a person, not as a health care provider,” Carmody, who had Covid-19 earlier in the pandemic, said.
‘Just doing the good stuff’
Moor sees the visits as an intangible but vital part of care, necessary for both patient and volunteer.
“These are the people who in the past year, in the past 10 months, have given their all. And then you give them the opportunity to stay behind, and they kind of thrive,” Moor said. “And it’s giving something back, some control or agency, over this awful thing we’ve been through.”
Instead of ducking in and out to minimize contact while providing care, Moor said the vaccine allows health care workers the luxury of finally “just doing the good stuff,” while opening up casual communication between patients and family members stuck outside the hospital.
For Hurley, that meant receiving texts from Moor, letting her know that he dropped off coffee and a doughnut for her husband, who was sleeping peacefully.
James came home in late January. After a follow-up quarantine to protect one of their children who is immunocompromised, Hurley reunited with her husband on Friday. Their children followed on Saturday, hugging their father for the first time in more than a month, she said.
Hurley has been deep-cleaning their home, but cannot bring herself to wipe away the kiss marks her family left on the house windows while her husband was quarantined.
“They’re a mess, but they’re still there,” Hurley said.
Hurley echoed Moor’s hope that similar volunteer programs spread to other hospitals.
“I owe Dr. Moor a debt of gratitude because, if heaven forbid something had happened to my husband, I would never have talked to him again,” she said. “And he was that person who allowed me to speak to him.”