'Am I going to see anyone again?': Hospital patients isolated from loved ones as COVID-19 stops family visits

COVID-19 has stripped families of the opportunity to provide comfort for their loved ones when they are sick in hospital. Many hospitals only allow visits for compassionate reasons — if it seems likely the patient will die. 

Hospitals across Canada have stopped visitation except for compassionate reasons

Mary-Anne Parker says not being able to comfort her 85-year-old father — who is in hospital recovering from pneumonia — with visits from his family has been heartbreaking. (Chanss Lagaden/CBC News)

Mary-Anne Parker says her parents are planners — they had talked about what to do if one of them got sick. But nothing could have prepared them for what happened when her 85-year-old father went to hospital with pneumonia. 

"When he went in to hospital, all of those expectations went out the window," said Parker of her father, Stephen. 

"This virus, and all of the very necessary measures that have been taken to contain it, means that the things that we would have expected, like being able to be with him physically, comfort him by holding his hand, joking around with him, it's all gone."

Parker is an end-of-life doula who helps people find comfort before they die. It's her job to help people faced with a situation like this — a life-threatening illness. 

But COVID-19 has stripped families like hers of the opportunity to provide the comfort they always thought they would. Under a public order issued in Saskatchewan, where Parker lives, family members can only visit their loved ones for compassionate reasons — if it seems likely they will die. 

I [saw] nurses go and sit with people who look like they are having really mentally tough times.- Chris Werner, Royal University Hospital patient

Restrictions on visitation were introduced the day Parker's father Stephen was admitted to hospital through the emergency room earlier this month. He remains in hospital indefinitely while he recovers. 

"We're kind of shocked… I don't have the words for it, we just don't know what to do next," she said.  

When Parker's father went into hospital, she didn't realize she wouldn't be able to come back with some of the items he might need. He didn't have a smartphone or a tablet, so they haven't been able to attempt any video calls. 

Now Parker and her family rely on a direct phone line set up by a helpful hospital worker as their only line of communication with Stephen. 

'It's so isolating'   

But she said the phone calls cannot bring the same comfort as physical contact. Although healthcare workers are there for him, she worries about the long, lonely nights for Stephen — the times he wakes up at 3 a.m., thinking the worst. 

Her father has told her he is frightened. 

"As he's in the recovery mode it's more about when, 'When do I get to see them? What if I don't get to see them, what if other people come in and I get sick from other people?'" she said.  

"When you're sitting in a hospital bed and you've got no one really around you that you know or can reach out to, it's so isolating and you feel so on your own and I think all of us would go down that route of imagining the worst of, 'am I going to see anyone again?'   

Nurses stepping up in place of families

Regina resident Chris Werner was admitted to Royal University Hospital in Saskatoon for urgent surgery on Monday. He was aware of the restrictions that were already in place and would prevent his wife, Laurel Stang, from visiting.

Both said they were concerned that they would be apart but understand the reasons behind the restrictions.

"You want your family there and it is a mental game, not being able to have that somebody there... even just holding your hand or whatever, just helping your mental state," said Werner.

"And so that was a little hard but I also understood why it was happening so I wasn't upset in that sense."

Werner said he noticed nurses taking on a bigger role in providing mental support for patients who could not be comforted by their families. 
Because of COVID-19, hospitals are not allowing people to visit their loved ones unless the visit is for compassionate reasons. (Chanss Lagaden/CBC News)

He said he saw medical staff trying to help facilitate video and phone calls between patients and their families, and showing compassion toward patients who were upset. 

"I [saw] nurses go and sit with people who look like they are having really mentally tough times and you know, just talking and stroking them and reassuring them," said Werner.

"They were doing a lot that I have never seen from previous hospital visits... they've had to really up their mental health game."

Werner said anyone who has time to prepare before their loved one goes to hospital should make sure they have the right technology, adding that he saw some elderly patients struggling to connect through video calls.

Werner is now home and recovering from his surgery with Stang by his side.

Health Authority urges use of technology

The Saskatchewan Health Authority website asks for the co-operation of families and visitors while the restrictions are ongoing.

"We acknowledge the importance of family support to both those who are healing within our hospitals and residents in long-term care homes," reads the website.  

"However, we are asking families and visitors for their co-operation in following these restrictions. We encourage families to consider virtual visiting through electronic applications such as FaceTime, Skype and WhatsApp."

Expectant mothers can have one support person to accompany them during their labour and postpartum period as long as that person has not travelled internationally in the past 14 days and does not have any symptoms of COVID-19 or any other respiratory illness. 

With files from Ioanna Roumeliotis