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COVID-19: Small Gestures Soothe Stress

COVID-19

Many hospitals treating COVID-19 patients have adopted strict no-visitor policies and patients’ only human contact is with masked and gloved medical workers.

By Lindsey Tanner
AP Medical Writer

A phone call sounds like such a small thing. But the sedated man in a Missouri hospital room was gravely ill with COVID-19, and nurses arranged for his family to wish him well, perhaps for the last time.

In another hospital, a guitar-playing nurse sings Amazing Grace outside patients’ rooms. And in another, doctors show smiling photos of themselves so COVID-19 patients can see the faces behind the masks.

In a time of anxiety and isolation, simple acts of kindness from medical workers are giving comfort and hope to patients and their families.

That phone call arranged by a nurse at a St. Louis-area hospital let Erin Muth talk to her dad, Steve Blaha, for the first time in six days and just hours after doctors revived him when his heart stopped beating.

“Dad had basically died and we hadn’t had a chance to say anything to him,” said Muth, a nurse herself in Iowa. She tearfully told her dad, “Thanks for everything you’ve done for me, rooting for me and cheering me on. I’m cheering you on now, Dad.”

Blaha, a machinist, turned 65 the next day, March 28, and though he remained sedated, Erin and her mom wished him happy birthday in a nurse-arranged video call.

Muth is convinced those calls gave Blaha strength. Days later doctors removed the ventilator and let Blaha breathe on his own. He’s weak, but recovering.

Most people do recover from the new coronavirus. But it can be life-threatening for older adults and people with existing health problems. Many hospitals treating COVID-19 patients have adopted strict no-visitor policies and patients’ only human contact is with masked and gloved medical workers.

Many hospitals treating COVID-19 patients have adopted strict no-visitor policies and patients’ only human contact is with masked and gloved medical workers.

“I’m afraid it might feel a little bit dehumanizing,” said Dr. Elizabeth Paulk, an attending physician at Parkland Memorial Hospital in Dallas. “So much of our interaction with patients is nonverbal, and I think a lot of the warmth and humanity of the interaction is lost when you can’t see someone’s smile or their face.”

That’s why Paulk decided to have her team make personal introductions, in simple paper printouts showing their names, color photos, and greetings in English and Spanish. Paulk’s photo shows her with her two kids.

The message: “We are complete people and we see them as complete people,” she said.

At Saline Memorial Hospital in Benton, Arkansas, Katie Lea, chief nursing officer, knew the staff and patients needed to ease their stress. She recalled that one nurse plays guitar and sings at a local church.

Michael Stramiello gladly obliged. On work breaks, wearing a blue surgical mask, he strums and sings at the nursing station and in the corridor, loud enough for patients to hear in their rooms.

Religious songs are his favorites, but at a patient’s request he played You are My Sunshine.

Stramiello said everyone is feeling “a bit more anxiety” because of the pandemic.

“Music has always been my personal therapy relief,” he said. “It’s a different approach to being a nurse, for sure. It makes me thankful to be able to do it.”

While nonstop global news about the effects of the coronavirus has become commonplace, so, too, are the stories about the kindness of strangers and individuals who have sacrificed for others. “One Good Thing” is an AP continuing series reflecting these acts of kindness.

The Associated Press Health and Science Department receives support from the Howard Hughes Medical Institute’s Department of Science Education. The AP is solely responsible for all content.

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