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article imageChile hospitals ensure patients do not die alone despite pandemic

By Paula BUSTAMANTE (AFP)     Jul 27, 2020 in Health

All over the world, people are dying alone as relatives are barred from visiting them in hospital for fear of catching and spreading the coronavirus. But not in Chile.

Here, special units have been set up where family members and loved ones are able to say their goodbyes even inside public hospitals where the virus is rife.

"Everyone leaves behind a family and we tried to get to know every person in the time we had," Natalia Ojeda, a doctor specializing in palliative care at the Barros Luco hospital in Santiago, told AFP.

This hospital has been one of the most affected in a country where more than 9,000 people have died with COVID-19 and which has seen over 340,000 cases amongst the 18 million population.

For two months now, the intense work routine has pushed Ojeda and her colleague Moyra Lopez to their limits.

Dr Moyra Lopez uses a tablet to pass on video and audio messages or play music to dying patients
Dr Moyra Lopez uses a tablet to pass on video and audio messages or play music to dying patients
Martin BERNETTI, AFP

"Before the pandemic we were used to patients dying but in their homes, surrounded by their families -- very different deaths to what we are seeing with COVID," said Lopez.

Around 60 people have died in the unit set up in the Barros Luco hospital where the two doctors work.

More than half were visited by family members and others died after a video call with those close to them.

Lopez carries around a tablet with which she can pass on audio or video messages like "thank you daddy for everything, rest now," or "dear grandad, listen to this song you love so much."

Doctors Natalia Ojeda and Moyra Lopez say they have had a lot of positive feedback from family membe...
Doctors Natalia Ojeda and Moyra Lopez say they have had a lot of positive feedback from family members whose messages they have been able to pass on to terminally ill patients
MARTIN BERNETTI, AFP

The unit is in a ward with windows that allow in natural light and the murmur of nature. It was set up amidst the panic of soaring coronavirus cases.

Both Ojeda and Lopez say that after hearing about the coronavirus patients dying alone in Europe and China, the hospital management made a priority of providing staff specialized in easing pain and terminal patients.

"The last week of June was the peak week, our ward was constantly full," said a tearful Ojeda, 37.

"Every death is unique and is a different experience."

- 'Gratitude' -

"We were afraid before we got into this for several reasons: facing death, the fear of infection and an illness that had nothing to do with what we're used to," said Lopez, 44, as medical personnel behind her took care of the body of a man who had just died.

"But the most amazing thing, which got us through it, has been the gratitude," added the mother of three.

"Such positive feedback from families, those that could come and those that sensed the patient went calmly."

Those who benefited from the unit had to abide by strict protocols and wear protective clothing.

Meanwhile, the unit's team -- mostly women -- have built a bond, crying together and overcoming the fear of infection through the satisfaction of passing on music, audio messages and the affection of loved ones.

- 'Patients always react' -

Lopez approaches "Don Manuel" with a message from his son.

They were "words of gratitude but also encouragement to rest in peace," said Lopez, who added that it's important not to stress patients in their final days with messages of false hope.

This man's life seems about to ebb away but just as Lopez plays the message, he moves his head and makes a noise, although without opening his eyes.

"Patients, even those in a deep coma, always react; they breathe quicker, their pulse accelerates, they move; hence it confirms that hearing is the last sense that you lose before dying," said Lopez.

Part of the job sometimes involves searching for music on YouTube to play to a patient because a family member said they liked it.

Two weeks ago, 94-year-old patient Enrique Boudon, who was suffering from a pneumonia brought on by COVID-19, continued to fight on despite his 10 children having already said their goodbyes.

His granddaughter called the unit and told them he used to be a trumpet player in Chile's Philharmonic Orchestra, and was a jazz fan.

"We looked on the tablet, put Miles Davis on the speaker and automatically he moved his hands as if conducting an orchestra. It was very moving. Two hours later he died," said Lopez.

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