SANTIAGO (Reuters) - Her hand clad in a blue latex glove, her face masked by a perspex shield, the woman lovingly stroked her father’s gray curls, cradled his head and pressed her mouth as close to his cheek as she could manage.
Doctors in the Chilean capital of Santiago fought for weeks to save 76-year-old Don Jaime from the clutches of the coronavirus pandemic, but last week recognized they would lose the battle and invited his family into the hospital to say goodbye.
Around the world, a need to slow the spread of the highly-contagious virus in hospitals has been placed above providing patients with the comfort of being with their families at the end of their lives.
One of the greatest cruelties of an illness that has killed almost half a million people worldwide, is that many have died alone, lucky to bid a digital goodbye via a computer tablet or phone.
Medical chiefs at the University of Chile’s clinical hospital in Santiago decided, however, to allow family visits and, wherever possible, create a space for a final farewell.
Visitors are screened for the coronavirus and issued with the same protective equipment used by medics, before being guided into the sealed glass rooms where COVID-19 patients are housed. So far, the hospital’s ICU has avoided any cases of contagion among its staff.
“We have always been a unit that advocates strongly not only for our patients but also for their families and we have continued to push for their presence at patients’ bedsides,” said Carlos Romero, head of the hospital’s Intensive Care Unit.
Latin America is now the epicenter of the pandemic and Chile is one of its hardest-hit nations, with cases leaping by several thousands daily and confirmed deaths nearing 5,000.
Dr Romero’s hospital is in the impoverished Independencia neighborhood, which has one of Santiago’s highest caseloads and death rates.
Despite converting wards and bolstering critical care beds from 50 to 140 since the virus hit in March, the hospital’s doctors warn that if patient numbers continue to climb, they will have no capacity to treat them.
Dr Romero’s specialism is in short supply in Chile, and he is just one of six overseeing the care of all his hospital’s most critical patients.
Each day at noon, however, he telephones patients’ families to update them, he told Reuters during a recent visit.
“We want to know we have done everything to save a patient and if that’s no longer possible, we stay by their side when the end comes, we ensure they aren’t in pain, are calm, that their family is aware and, if possible, spends some time with them, even if just for a moment,” he said.
Don Jaime has since passed away.
Reporting by Aislinn Laing, Editing by Rosalba O'Brien