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“In the age of COVID-19… the comfort of touch is gone.”

Hands clasped together
By Doriane Miller, MD

Chicago, IL
United States

I am a hugger from way back. I hug my family members, I hug my friends, I hug my coworkers, and I hug my patients. However, in the age of COVID-19, I am unable to hug and even my ability to touch my patients is limited.

When my mother was dying, I could not hug her among the IVs, endotracheal tubes, and other gizmos attached to her. She was unconscious and fighting the ventilator as she struggled to breathe, clutching the sheets on her bed. I sat at her bedside and stroked her hand, while I silently had a conversation with her about her current circumstances. This was a six-hour conversation. I sat at her bedside as the nurses and doctors wandered in and out of her room in the ICU. When I stroked her hand, she did not fight the ventilator and her hands relaxed.

Four hours into this six-hour silent conversation, the ICU doctor caring for her came in and shared the news that her brain waves were flat and supporting her breathing on a ventilator would not lead to her recovery. My brother and I decided to withdraw support and we insisted on staying with her while the breathing tube was removed. I stroked her hand. She was calm. Whenever I withdrew my hand, she would cough and thrash and grasp at the sheets. Flat waves or not, she knew I was there.

When I silently told her that I had to leave to pick up my daughter from school, she stopped breathing and her heart stopped beating. She knew that it was time for her to let go and she allowed me to go about the business of caring for her beloved granddaughter. This was one of the hardest days of my life. However, I was able to comfort my mother in her final moments through the power of touch.

In the age of COVID-19, patients are cared for by doctors and nurses who look like they came out of a science fiction movie. In some places, doctors and nurses are putting their pictures on their gowns so that patients can see their faces. Only one doctor sees each patient and this doctor minimizes physical contact with patients.

Family members cannot hug or touch their loved ones for fear of getting infected by those nasty COVID-19-filled droplets. At many funerals I’ve attended in the African American community, it is not uncommon to see loved ones of the deceased touch the corpse as a final symbol of affection prior to closing the casket. In the age of COVID-19, that ritual is gone. The comfort of touch is gone.

I had to share some bad news with one of my nurses last week. One of our clinic patients died from COVID-19. I took the nurse into an exam room and asked her to sit down as I told her about our patient, an African American woman in her early 30s who succumbed to the illness. She cried and told me how unfair this illness was to blacks. I cried with her and agreed about how unfair this illness was to the people we care for on Chicago’s South Side.

We wanted to hug and comfort each other as colleagues, but instead we sat six feet away from each other, with red eyes and tear-streaked faces, our face masks becoming soaked with tears. We promised to take the time to hug each other someday.

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