Corona Virus and connecting with loved ones in nursing homes or hospitalsIs love like a plague? That’s what Nobel Prize-winning author Gabriel Garcia Marquez suggests in Love in the Time of Cholera.

In today’s frightening COVID-19 pandemic, the situation may be turned on its head. The plague gets in the way of our love. Because of the pandemic, we may not be able to visit a loved one who is ill in a hospital or nursing facility for some unrelated reason but nonetheless still isolated from family and friends.

When our loved ones are sick, we want to be by their side to help and advocate for them. In a hospital or other facility, under normal circumstances, advocates can make all the difference in the world – sometimes even between life and death.

But what if the hospital or nursing facility is closed to visitors because of the pandemic? How do we find out how our loved is doing, talk to their nurses and doctors and make sure they are getting the best possible care?

We must be creative in order to stay involved. Here are some suggestions:

Start with something on many people’s minds: What is the hospital or facility doing to protect patients and staff during this difficult time? Some are excluding all visitors. Others have restrictions and limitations. It’s important to find out what rules are in place and if there any exceptions. Follow the guidelines; they are there for everyone’s protection.

Another thing to check out: Do they have enough masks, gloves, other personal protective equipment (PPE) and hand sanitizers? Are they and your loved one getting all the protection needed? When staff lack proper protection, they and their patients may be endangered. This problem is more critical in some areas of the country than others.

Sara Merwin, a patient educator and author, says you can and should follow up on these issues. Speak to the staff. Ask questions. Take your concerns up the food chain if necessary. Nicely but firmly insist on answers.

In addition, you might want to see if there are ways you can help if the shortages are critical. Ask if there are phone calls you can make or local, state or federal representatives to contact. If you have PPE you can donate, see if your loved one’s hospital or facility is in need. If not, go to your search engine and enter “PPE” with the name of your city or state. You will likely find many places that would be happy to accept your donation.

In terms of helping your loved one directly, there are some things you can do remotely. Depending on your loved one’s state of mind, you can talk on the phone one or more times a day, perhaps at pre-set times. Figure out what meets your needs and expectations for you and your loved one.

If your loved one can use technology, make the most of it. There are lots of apps that might work – What’sApp, Google Duo, Face Time, Skype and Zoom to name a few.

If not, one suggestion is to arrange a time, drive to the nursing facility, make sure in advance your loved one can come to the window on their own or with assistance … and then you can both see each other while talking. It’s low tech but it might work. This would be more difficult in a hospital with many floors and limited views.

Beyond that, you can check in with the nurse on shift at the hospital or facility. Find out if there is a good time to call to see how your loved one is doing. You don’t want to call during shift changes, for example. Or perhaps it will be easier to reach the nurse by texting. Video chats would be especially nice. So, find out what’s possible.

Try to establish a routine for talking to the doctor. See if you can call in during rounds so you can hear what is being said or participate in a video chat. Perhaps calling the doctor’s office later in the day is a better bet. Be sure to explore the options.

However you keep in touch, here are some tips for making the most of your interactions:

Make sure you know the doctor in charge of your loved one’s care. In a teaching hospital there may be many people looking after the patient. Find out who is the attending physician and how to contact that person directly.

Maintain a log—with dates and times—of conversations with your loved one, nurses and doctors.

Include important details including diagnoses, procedures, changes in medications and concerns about your loved one’s condition.

Keep a list of questions, the answers you receive, from whom and when.

Ask your loved one what questions or concerns they may have and try to get answers for them.

If you don’t feel legitimate problems are being acknowledged, raise the level of concern to those next in charge, up to the director of nursing or medical director of the hospital or facility.

If your loved one is to be discharged, make sure you have all the information you need about next steps. If you don’t believe the patient is ready to leave, you have the right to appeal under Medicare.

One thing about contacting the doctors and nurses: Be sure there is just one person from the family in charge of communication. That’s important for advocacy during normal times and it’s equally – if not more — important now. Doctors and nurses are stressed to their limits and beyond. We want to remain involved as best we can, but we don’t want to make their jobs any harder than they already are.