When the coronavirus came to Boston, doctors at Brigham and Women’s Hospital noticed how silent certain floors became. Any patients who could be discharged were discharged. Anyone who could stay away stayed away. “The hospital had this eerie quiet,” says Jane deLima Thomas, the director of palliative care at Brigham and Women’s Hospital and Dana-Farber Cancer Institute. But in the intensive-care units set up for COVID-19, machines beeped and whirred in room after room of the sickest patients. Those patients were sedated, intubated, and isolated. Many of them would die.
Palliative care is about providing comfort—physical and emotional—to patients who are seriously ill, including those who may be close to death. Before the pandemic, deLima Thomas’s team worked with patients with kidney disease or cancer or heart failure, but this spring, they all switched to COVID-19. They embedded themselves in the ICUs. Palliative care is a field especially invested in the power of a hug, a steadying hand, and a smile. In other words, palliative care is made especially difficult by a virus that spreads through human contact.
The first day the palliative-care doctors walked into the ICUs, Thomas says, “we felt like tourists.” They were dressed in business casual, while their ICU colleagues raced around in scrubs and masks. But the palliative-care team—which includes physicians, nurses, chaplains, and social workers—found ways to integrate themselves. In the early days of the pandemic, when protective gear was scarce, no visitors were allowed. Palliative caregivers, along with ICU nurses, held iPads cocooned in plastic bags so families could say goodbye on Zoom. They were sometimes the only one in the room when a patient died, otherwise alone. I interviewed several members of the Boston-based palliative-care team, and their stories, which have been condensed and edited for clarity, are below.
Samantha Gelfand, Fellow
In the ICU, the most immediate thing is the personal experience of walking down the hall. Nearly every patient’s room, the door is closed, and the patient is alone. And they’re often on their bellies for prone positioning. You can’t even see their faces often.