Hospitalized COVID-19 patients are isolated from family and friends. At Parkland Memorial Hospital, doctors are using virtual communication to bridge this emotional divide, as well as changing the way doctors work with each other.
Katrina Parks had a 4-month-old daughter when she found out her husband was going to be put on a ventilator after testing positive for COVID-19. She Facetimed him just before he was intubated.
“I just told him that I loved him, and I told him, ‘Please just make sure you come back home to me,'” she recalls.
Minutes later, Parks got a phone call from her daughter’s doctor. Her infant had also tested positive.
“This was the worst day of my life,” Parks said. “I was afraid, for sure, especially for my husband, because I couldn’t see [him]. So, I cried and cried and then I said, ‘What do we do have to do next to fix this?'”
Parks was allowed to stay with her daughter. The baby recovered after about a week, but Parks’ husband was much sicker and was isolated in the COVID Unit at Parkland Hospital.
Parkland, like most hospitals across the country, doesn’t allow family members to visit COVID patients.
Dr. Padmaja Reddy, a palliative care physician at Parkland, says she believes being near loved ones is critical for a patient’s recovery.
“You know, any illness happens to a family, not just a patient,” she says. “But the separation makes this especially hard on families.”
As COVID-19 started to spread in North Texas, Reddy developed a plan using video conferencing app Zoom to make sure family members like Parks could connect virtually to patients.
“I had this horrible doomsday picture in my head — not being able to breathe, on a ventilator,” Parks said. “So, whenever I got to see him, I said, ‘Oh my goodness, you look so great.’ He looks like he’s finally able to get the rest that he needs. I was so happy to see him.”
Reddy says Parkland’s new COVID protocol also uses Zoom to virtually connect doctors like infectious disease specialists and cardiologists with staff at the bedside, like nurses and pulmonologists.
“Sixteen big faces lined up like the Brady Bunch on a screen,” Reddy said. “Everybody talks together and puts their best ideas forward and comes to a consensus, and we move on from there.”
This is not how patient care is typically handled in the ICU. Generally, physicians and staff check on patients independently, then leave notes for each other.
Reddy says the flexibility technology offers is often more efficient and better for patients.
“We had a patient come in crashing and burning, and yes, they had COVID affecting the lungs, but they also had serious heart problems,” Reddy said. “In minutes we were able to text our colleagues, get them the Zoom information, and there they were.”
As staff began popping up on the screen, they launched into a multidisciplinary discussion of the patient’s condition.
“I don’t know if this is going to carry forward post-COVID, but I really hope it does,” Reddy said.
Internal medicine residents have gotten in on the Zoom calls, too. They make rounds virtually in the mornings, and have dedicated time in the afternoons to keep families updated on a patient’s progress.
Katrina Parks says a medical resident would also coordinate calls between her and COVID nurses so she could speak to her husband while he was on the ventilator.
“Every day that he was in the hospital, I left the light on in our room. So, every day that I talked to him, I told him I am waiting for you to come home and turn the light off,” Parks said. “I was hoping that he could hear us and know that we love him and miss him.”
After being on the ventilator for 21 days, Kerry Parks was able to breathe on his own. The first person he remembers seeing was his wife on Zoom.
“Ahhh man, that was something else,” he said. “Seeing her face, seeing my daughter — it’s an indescribable feeling.”
Katrina Parks, sitting close to her husband on the sofa, said that Zoom call is something she will never forget.
“He was mouthing to me ‘Baby, baby.’ And, I was like ‘You want to see the baby?’ He said yes, and I held the baby up into this Zoom picture and then he just started bawling,” Katrina said. “I was just like, oh my goodness, everything is going to be alright.”
After nearly a month in the hospital, Kerry finally came home. He got to hold his baby and turn off the bedroom lights.