Photo by H Shaw on Unsplash

Less than two weeks ago, nurses at the Downtown Seattle Virginia Mason developed a process that safely allows family members to visit loved ones dying from COVID-19. One of very few hospitals nationwide to have in place a procedure to make this possible, Virginia Mason hopes to ease some of the pain and fear for patients and their loved ones.

“A few weeks ago, we had a patient die from COVID, and we had a long conversation about what it was like for the family members of this person not to be able to come say goodbye,” said Dana Nelson-Peterson, vice president of nursing at Virginia Mason. “So, we put together a team of nurses to problem solve, step by step, how we could safely bring our patients’ loved ones into the critical care unit, have them go into the room, spend some time, and have the opportunity to say their goodbyes.”

This process is led by nurses, called “support companions,” who were previously furloughed because of the dramatic decrease in elective surgery and elective procedure cases. Currently, five such nurses — with potential for more to join — who expressed interest in the position are available to assist family members who would like to enter the hospital room of a loved one nearing end of life to do so.

“It’s not a job anyone could do,” Nelson-Peterson said of the role, which nurses started practicing on April 16, just two days after plans for it were drawn up. “These nurses are empathetic and compassionate as they engage with people dealing with overwhelming grief.”

Nurses meet family members at a designated point of entry after connecting with them on the phone if a patient appears to be nearing end of life, explained Jessica Dunn, director of Virginia Mason Kaizen Promotion Office and one of the nurses who assisted in implementing the Support Companion program. Nurses walk people to the patient’s room and educate them on the correct personal protection equipment (PPE) that they are required to wear, which includes masks, double gloves, gowns, and face shields. In the room, the nurse acts as both a support system and a barrier to ensure PPE is correctly worn and all safety protocols are carefully followed.

“Nurses are busy providing clinical care for these very complex patients, yes,” said Catherine O’Keefe, director of the critical care and progressive care units at Virginia Mason. “But families are always our patients, as well. We value their presence, and we want to do everything we can to help them.”

Nelson-Peterson added that nurses do gently dissuade families from coming in because of the risks involved, offering to take an iPad into the room, or to play music instead. The option, however, is available.

As for current demand for this service, O’Keefe said that Virginia Mason is fortunate not to have very many patients who are facing this end-of-life situation.

“Many of our patients have gotten better, and the numbers are low at the moment,” O’Keefe said. “But we feel it’s really important to have this available when the need arises.”

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