‘They have no loved ones with them’
One day, members of CHAM’s medical team contacted Dr. Norris about a patient with COVID-19 who’d been cared for by Montefiore clinicians all of his young life. The boy’s mother, who did not speak English, was at his bedside in the ICU, and the clinicians asked Dr. Norris to speak with her by cell phone while they prepared him for intubation.
“We were looking at each other through a glass window wall in our ICU,” Dr. Norris recalled. “I talked to her the entire time the team worked to put him on the breathing machine, through an interpreter. I asked her to tell me about her son and about her family, and she did. We developed a warm relationship. After that, every day I would see her son through the glass window wall. Every couple of days, I would have the privilege of talking to his mother by phone. At one point, she asked me, ‘Dr. Norris, do you think his lungs will heal?’ I had to tell her no. Almost selfishly, I was relieved we were on the phone, because she cried, and so did I. When he died, she was able to be by his side.”
Frederick J. Kaskel, MD, PhD, joined QUILT as a supportive caller after being asked to go home during his on-call shift on St. Patrick’s Day at CHAM, where he serves as chief emeritus of nephrology. “I was told that I was deemed to be at high risk because of my age,” the 75-year-old said. “The next day, a junior person took over for me, and 2 days later she got sick with COVID-19. She’s fine but she was home for 3 weeks sick as a dog. It was scary.”
In his role as a supportive caller, Dr. Kaskel found himself engaged in his share of detective work, trying to find phone numbers of next of kin for patients hospitalized with COVID-19. “When they come into the ER, they may not have been with a loved one or a family member; they may have been brought in by an EMT,” he said. “Some of them speak little English and others have little documentation with them. It takes a lot of work to get phone numbers.”
Once Dr. Kaskel reaches a loved one by phone, he introduces himself as a member of the QUILT team. “I tell them I’m not calling to update the medical status but just to talk to them about their loved one,” he said. “Then I usually ask, ‘So, how are you doing with this? The stress is enormous, the uncertainties.’ Then they open up and express their fears. I’ve had a lot of people say, ‘we have no money, and I don’t know how we’re going to pay rent for the apartment. We have to line up for food.’ I also ask what they do to alleviate stress. One guy said, ‘I drink a lot, but I’m careful.’ ”
Dr. Kaskel, who is also a past president of the American Society of Pediatric Nephrology, applies that same personable approach in daily conversations with adult patients hospitalized at CHAM with COVID-19, the majority of whom are African Americans in their 30s, 40s, and 50s. “Invariably, they ask, ‘Has my loved one been updated as to my status?’ ” he said. “The second thing they often say is, ‘I’m worried about infecting other people, but I also worry if I’m going to get through this. I’m really afraid I’m going to die.’ I say, ‘You have a wonderful team keeping track of you. They’re seeing you all the time and making changes to your medicines.’ ”
When patients express their fear of dying from the virus, Dr. Kaskel asks them how they’re coping with that fear. Most tell him that they pray.
“If they don’t answer, I ask if they have any hobbies, like ‘Are you watching TV? Are you reading? Do you have your cell phone?’ ” he said. “Then they open up and say things like, ‘I’m listening to music on the cell phone,’ or ‘I’m FaceTiming with my loved ones.’ The use of FaceTime is crucial, because they are in a hospital, critically ill, potentially dying alone with strangers. This really hit me on the first day [of this work]. They have no loved ones with them. They have strangers: the CHAM nurses, the medical residents, the social workers, and the doctors.”