Hospice Care Continues — Without the Human Touch

By: - May 11, 2020 12:00 am

Read Stateline coverage of the latest state action on coronavirus.

As Melissa Moody leaned over the bed of her patient, a dying old woman with COVID-19 and dementia, she was surprised when the woman raised a wavering hand and gently caressed the shield that covered the hospice nurse’s face.

“She wanted to stroke my cheek, but instead stroked my face shield,” said Moody, who runs an in-patient, COVID-only, pop-up hospice unit near New Orleans.

“It struck me that she needed to feel human touch at the end of her life.”

Shortly after, the woman took her last breath.

If anyone in the health care industry might have been expected to be prepared to face the grim toll from COVID-19, it was hospice care providers whose purpose even in normal times is to usher the dying to peaceful, pain-free endings.

Yet even hospice care workers have found their professional lives altered in unimagined ways. The pandemic introduces fear and risk into their daily routines while limiting the arsenal of customary tools they wield to bring comfort to the dying and bereaved.

Touch is just one of those techniques. “Hugs used to be a big part of my job,” said Luan Biggs, a certified nursing assistant with the southern Wisconsin hospice and palliative care provider Agrace. Skin-on-skin contact — so prevalent, if not essential, in hospice work — is off limits now.

Hospice care, which addresses the physical, psychological and spiritual needs of patients and their families, is particularly intimate. Patients develop bonds with hospice caregivers, who include physicians, nurses and nurse assistants, social workers, bereavement counselors and often spiritual care coordinators as well.

Unlike elsewhere in health care, hospice workers tend to spend prolonged time with patients and their families. Care is often holding a hand or offering an empathetic smile. A premium is placed on physical and emotional presence.

Story continues after map

Our stories may be republished online or in print under Creative Commons license CC BY-NC-ND 4.0. We ask that you edit only for style or to shorten, provide proper attribution and link to our web site. Please see our republishing guidelines for use of photos and graphics.

Michael Ollove

Michael Ollove covers health care for Stateline. Ollove worked for many years at The Baltimore Sun, as an enterprise reporter and an editor.