Healthcare workers become family during COVID crisis

The importance of the touch

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Black nurses have always been at the frontlines. (AFRO Archive Photo)

By Imani Wj Wright
Special to the AFRO

Though jobs, customs and lives were lost with COVID-19- there’s another layer of turmoil that has risen from all of this. The lack of physical interaction has been beyond difficult. Many of us have had to socially distance for extended periods of time. Some of us may have been complacent and compliant, while others may have been anxious and defiant. However, there are those who are traumatized from having had to be distanced while loved ones suffered and, ultimately, succumbed to the virus. Through this separation, healthcare workers have been in the forefront and deeply connected. 

During a TED Talk in 2011, Abraham Verghese, a professor at Stanford University School of Medicine, referred to the human touch as the “most important innovation in medicine to come in the next 10 years.” Verghese described the human touch between physicians and patients as “transformative, transcendent, and at the heart of the patient-physician relationship.”

A small clinical  trial conducted by the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine, revealed that physicians give fewer “compassionate nonverbal cues” when treating seriously ill Black patients, in comparison to seriously ill White patients.  “Although we found that physicians said the same things to their Black and White patients, communication is not just the spoken word. It also involves nonverbal cues, such as eye contact, body positioning and touch,” said senior author Dr. Amber Barnato, associate professor of the university’s department of clinical and translational medicine. 

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Verghese’s speech was 10 years ago and the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine trial was in 2016, but as seen with the coronavirus pandemic, their emphasis on compassion and the importance of human touch in treating patients has been amplified during the pandemic.

Healthcare workers have had to become the one connection between families and their loved ones. Their work has surpassed the “bare minimum.”  Phone calls, text messages and video chats have been incorporated into patients’ care, as doctors, nurses and others involved with medical care have taken the de facto role of family. They may not always touch their patients during this time, but their emotional and spiritual support exceeds some of the standard tactile duties. 

“Being the person that I am, I’m compassionate, so when [patients] don’t have anybody, I have to be there for them. I have to be the same as their family. No one can come in, no one can come visit. You are that person,” Jamila Colston, a certified nursing assistant (CNA), told the AFRO. “You have to advocate for that person- everything. Down to their care, their self dignity, everything.” 

While this virus and working in these conditions is uncharted territory, the AFRO asked Colston if healthcare workers are trained to offer such compassionate support and take on family roles. “It’s definitely not practiced,” she responded.  “You have to be in this business to be compassionate and have compassion for the person you’re taking care of. You can’t be one way with one patient, and treat another patient a different way. You know? I feel like it comes naturally if you really care about people and want to be in this business.”

“It’s even hard for patients who don’t have COVID because they can’t see their families,” Kir Pitts, a CNA and soon to be nurse, told the AFRO. “When the pandemic first started, patients and nurses were scared. We were scared. We didn’t know the toll that the virus would take on their bodies. The nurses tried to use all of the telehealth visits, Facetimes on the hospital IPads, phone calls, all of that stuff.”

Pitts and Colston may work directly with patients, but their positions are not the only ones that have had an impact on patients and their families. Terrie Hunt, a case management specialist at an insurance company gave the AFRO some insight on how they’ve been able to help patients and families through this time.

(AFRO Archive Photo)

“We became the go-between for family members and patients. We could talk directly to the staff, and had access to specific medical records. That has been very helpful,” Hunt said. She said many patients don’t know what they have available to them. 

“We also found that navigating through the healthcare system is very challenging for the average patient. Most people have no clue about testing, the different labs that are done, the way that a hospital works… We become that person who helps them navigate that system and really understand it,” Hunt explained.  “We’re sort of your partner throughout this illness.”  

In general, COVID has health workers working steadily and beyond the general call of duty.

“COVID is affecting many people. We are trying as a nursing agency and as professionals to meet those demands. It’s two parts to the fold, trying to work as professionals in an area that is very new to many of us, and also keeping up with the demand. It’s such a great amount of people on top of an infrastructure that is already strained,” Michell Wike, founder of All-Staffing Inc., a nursing agency in Baltimore told the AFRO.

However, Wike, like Colston, emphasized the need for nurses to have a level of warmth and sympathy in order to fully tend to the patients and their families.

“At All-Staffing, compassion is a fundamental ingredient to begin with. As we understood COVID better, we understood the need and the empathy needed. You have to have compassion with the coronavirus.”

Kathleen Kilmer, has created a way for people to show appreciation to healthcare workers during this time.  Kilmer, founder of EasyEventPlanning.com created HonorAndThank, a platform for anyone to “post a message of gratitude to COVID first responders working in hospitals, nursing homes and emergency services.” The HonorAndThank founder said she believes that increased grief, depression and stress could lead to healthcare workers calling out of their positions. HonorAndThank is Kilmer’s contributions to helping retain the much needed healthcare workers serving on the frontline daily.