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Experiences of Covid-19 and Intensive Care

Staying in touch during the visitor ban

For family members and close friends, the period in which a partner, relative or friend was in hospital was a distressing time. Family members found comfort in being together and in providing support and care for each other. However, a key feature of the COVID-19 pandemic was the restriction or suspension of hospital visits to reduce transmission of the virus. This meant that family members and friends were not allowed to visit their loved ones in hospital, unless in exceptional circumstances (see also ’End of life visits’).

Here you can listen to family members’ experiences of being unable to accompany their loved one to hospital, and how they tried to keep in touch whilst the hospitals were closed to visitors.

This page covers:

  • Admission to hospital: not being able to accompany a loved one to hospital
  • When a loved one in hospital is well enough to communicate: phone and text
  • When a loved one no longer responds to phone or text
  • Waiting by the phone

Please be aware that what people share on this page may be upsetting to hear and read.

Admission to hospital: not being able to accompany a loved one to hospital

With the visitor restrictions in place, when patients were taken to hospital, family members had to leave their loved one at the doors of the Accident & Emergency (A&E) ward or stay behind when paramedics took them by ambulance. Like many others we spoke to, Paula described how Victor became increasingly unwell. She and their son Rob were unable to go with him when he was taken by the ambulance:

 

Paula felt overwhelmed when she could not go with Victor when he was taken by ambulance.

Paula felt overwhelmed when she could not go with Victor when he was taken by ambulance.

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I called the ambulance and I told them what his levels were on Thursday night and because I had the oximeter there, his levels had gone down to 77, which…my one was out by 2 per cent, so theirs was at 75, it would have been, mine was a little bit higher or it was the other way round, I can’t remember now.

They went, don’t worry, we’ll have someone there immediately and yes, they arrived, the ambulance arrived within…it had to be 10-15 minutes, they were here, and she had me on the phone and she said, if he passes out, get him onto the floor. They came in and as…because they could see, I’d put it on his little finger, so they could see the oximeter, so as one of them was coming round, the other one was unwinding the oxygen, there and then, as they could see it. They asked his name, and he could tell them his name and he just said…the paramedic said to him, so Vic, what’s been happening, he said, I haven’t been totally honest, I’m not well and me and my son was standing there thinking, what has he not told us. So, they took his oxygen, obviously his oxygen levels on their meter, blood pressure, his blood pressure was through the roof and his heart rate was through the roof.

So, therefore, then they went…they were here, got here at eleven, left at 11:25, in the ambulance and she shut the door…she said, you better say goodbye now. So, we kissed him goodbye and didn’t know really whether to because we didn’t know, if he’s that infectious and he just looked through us as they shut the doors, he just looked through us as if we wasn’t there. He didn’t…it’s like he couldn’t see us and shut the doors and I said…I went to the paramedic, how serious are we talking, and she went, oh we’re not hanging around. I thought, oh my word and that was it, the doors were shut, and he was gone, and it was like, what do we do now, we just stood in the middle of the road. And it was…they phoned me, they were very, very good, I have to say, each time, once they’d got him to the hospital and he had been seen, I had phone calls constantly updating me. So, that was really good, that part, yes so, they said to me that they would…that he would be put up on a Covid ward.

So, at 11:25 he left here, by 3 o'clock in the afternoon, he was on a Covid ward, and they’d said…the paramedics had said to me, make sure he’s got his phone and charger which we’d put in his bag and because I’d had it ready from the Thursday night. So, I literally shove it…and they went but…I said well it was ready from Thursday because it was literally putting his phone and a charger in and we never spoke to him again, after that, for five weeks because he couldn’t actually talk on the phone.

Sometimes family members were ill themselves and/or self-isolating when their loved one needed to go to hospital, and could not take them to A&E.

 

When Simon became increasingly unwell, Donna was in self-isolation so that their daughter had to take him to A&E.

When Simon became increasingly unwell, Donna was in self-isolation so that their daughter had to take him to A&E.

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So, I called the ambulance and that’s when they said could they speak to Simon, which they did, and they said they couldn't come, it was a day that was really busy, they couldn’t come. So, we had a bit of that before because when I was poorly six years ago, they didn’t come for me either.

So, I thought I’ve got to get him to the hospital, and I said to my daughter, Sophie, could you come from work, come and get dad and take him to hospital, because I’m self-isolating, he needs to go into hospital. I didn’t really think it was really urgent, I have to say. Even though I call the emergency services often for patients. I dealt with it straight away, then my daughter came, and Simon was upstairs, and it took ages, it took him about an hour to get ready. He was having a shower and getting ready, and I went up to say come on, we’ve got to hurry up, you’ve got to go to hospital now. So, my daughter took him into the local hospital, and I packed up some belongings and I just said to Simon, I’ll see you soon, thinking that I would see him soon, because I never really thought it was so serious. I just thought the oxygen and whatever, antibiotics. And that’s when he obviously stayed in, and we were all liaising as family. But I think it’s more difficult if you’ve got two people that have got Covid and are unwell because you’re trying to deal with it on your own without anybody in here.

So, then he went into hospital with your daughter?

Yeah. With my daughter. Little bit worrying. My daughter said, where shall I take dad in? I said, oh, go to A&E, leave him in the car, get out, go and ask at reception. He had a mask on, they both did. She knew the protocol. So, she then took him in, because he was a little bit wobbly. They went past A&E, so other people were sitting in A&E, and so you’re taking a Covid patient through A&E, past a red line, and then she has to leave him there because she wasn’t allowed to go in any further because of Covid. Because obviously it was back in January, there were more casualties, more people that had got it. So, she felt a little bit unnerved by taking him through A&E where there was people that perhaps didn’t have Covid. Then she left him there with a health professional, didn’t just leave him. That was it. Then we said we’ll keep messaging. He had his phone and iPad, which was really handy, and that was his lifeline in there.

When the person in hospital is well enough to communicate: communication via phone and text

When the person in hospital was well enough to communicate, they would keep family members and friends up to update via calls and texts about what was happening and how they were doing. For instance, Donna explained that her husband would send messages “when he was on the ward, and even with the CPAP (Continuous Positive Air Pressure) mask on he was still messaging. And he actually sent photos of himself with the hood on and when he was in hospital.” Chris also mentioned that he sent photos and sent them to his family.

 

Chris sent selfies to his family when he was unable to talk.

Chris sent selfies to his family when he was unable to talk.

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Obviously with technology as it is nowadays, I was also able to send them pictures, that I took a selfie every day of me wearing my masks and sent it to our family chat. So, every day I was able to, although I couldn’t always talk to them, I was able to send them pictures, we have a family chat, so I’d send them pictures. Because I had the mask on, I couldn’t really talk to them, but I tried to video… When I was sedated, apparently, on the first day, they Facetimed me and a nurse held it up; but I have no recollection of it at all. Apparently, a nurse held my phone up and was, like, in the picture with me to my mum and dad; but I don’t remember that at all, but my dad told me that they did.

But then as I obviously got…after my sedation wore off and I knew more I took a picture every day, sent it to them. I’d have messages from my brother who was downstairs, he would message me, my sister all the time. Because they hadn’t heard from me…a couple of my mates even reached out to my sister and said, like, oh, we haven’t heard from Chris in a couple of days, is he all right; and she told them, and then I got messages from some of my best mates just because I hadn’t been in contact with them since a couple of days. As I got slightly better, I managed to be able to text a few other friends and be like, I’m in hospital, I’m not doing great, I am getting better though so don’t worry. Yeah, it’s just lucky that technology is how it is now, that I could send pictures, send stupid messages from my sister, even, when I could, have a little video call just to people that, yeah, you’re getting there and everything’s okay. Just nice to see people, isn’t it, that’s the main thing, when you can’t see anyone, you know it was nice, just, yeah, just to be able to see them.

When their family members were breathless, on breathing equipment or unwell in hospital, family members often kept contact as short as possible. Alisha described how talking on the phone exhausted her father, so she sent him text messages instead to save his energy. However, it could be difficult at times to deal with different ways in which other family members went about keeping in touch with him.

 

Alisha tried not to ring her dad in hospital and texted him instead, as to not exhaust him.

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Alisha tried not to ring her dad in hospital and texted him instead, as to not exhaust him.

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Us as family, we didn’t used to bother him too much because we wanted him to focus on his breathing and his recovery, but whenever we did speak to him that would probably be maximum two to three minutes a day. If we spoke for ten minutes it was like wow, I’ve spoken to my dad for such a long time today. But understandably he was just too tired to speak.

So, he would call you?

Yeah. Initially he was able to text. It was mostly us calling him. He wasn’t very interested in calling. The problem is me and my mum tried to give him more space, whereas other family members were calling him quite a lot and calling him quite often, so he was getting tired, so it was like he’s having to repeat the same thing to loads of other people, so us as close family we didn’t want him to feel pressured. And we did tell other people please don’t call him so much because he doesn’t need to talk to anyone right now, he just needs to focus on himself, and if you need updates on how he’s doing we’ll give you those updates because we speak to doctors every day. But it’s very hard to explain, sometimes emotions take over, which is also understandable. So, he was very limited. He used to text, but even his texting was starting to get bad. He was taking 15 minutes to write one message. It was just not going the right way.

Some patients like Jo asked staff to get in touch with their family members on their behalf if they themselves were too short of breath or too unwell to do so.

 

Jo asked staff to get in touch with her sister when she was too breathless to do so herself.

Jo asked staff to get in touch with her sister when she was too breathless to do so herself.

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I wasn’t really able to talk to my sister particularly because I would get out of breath too quickly and, you know, I just wanted the doctors to call her and stay in touch with her. And one of the staff was saying, well, this is actually the first thing on our patient charter that we aim to keep the family informed as much as possible. And I found that it was only if I was really on them that they actually remembered to make a call. Because my sister was having problems getting into the phone system and getting in touch with the ward or ICU. That was the…because, you know, it’s easier for the hospital to ring out on the off chance hopefully the person that they’re calling is available. But that was very frustrating I think for my sister, as well as for me.

When a loved one no longer responds to texts or calls

If a patient became physically unable to communicate, for instance because they were too unwell and needed to be sedated, family members and friends lost touch with them. Deborah described the silence as her husband’s condition worsened as an “anxiety provoking time”. Clinicians became family members’ only port of call.

Some family members called the hospital to find out why their loved one had not been in touch. Dana describes how her husband, who left home with the paramedics in the early weeks of the pandemic, was initially able to communicate with her via his phone. But as he became more unwell, the silences and periods of uncertainty grew longer. She became more desperate to obtain information about how he was doing. In the absence of any information about his whereabouts and wellbeing, she tried to get information through friends working at the hospital.

 

When Dana could neither reach her husband, nor the hospital, she tried to get information through friends working in hospital.

When Dana could neither reach her husband, nor the hospital, she tried to get information through friends working in hospital.

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He walked out of the door in his pyjamas to the hospital…to the ambulance at 04:30 in the morning. I then, feeling obviously a bit panicked ’cause obviously I wasn’t allowed to go with him, called, messaged several of my close friends who are medics, asking if they knew anybody at the hospital that I knew he would be going to, to look out for him. And I was very lucky that one of my friends replied at about six in the morning to say that her colleague had received my husband and had put him on oxygen. And had given him antibiotics and that he was being monitored and that somebody would call me at some time.

I was really grateful that I had that connection because I didn’t hear from anybody at the hospital for several days. My husband, obviously there was a bit of a silence as they were examining him and we had to wait until quite late in that day at about…in the early hours of the afternoon before I got some word from my husband. He texted me back to say that he was in what he called the ‘dystopia of A&E’ and that he was going to be moved to a ward.

And that was really difficult because my only contact was him and he wasn’t replying very often, there was a lot of waiting, a lot of silence. A lot of unknown uncertainty and that was quite difficult and that’s, I think, going to be a large part of the theme of what had…a traumatic experience for me was the lack of communication. Later that evening he was feeling a bit better, he was able to communicate a little bit on the phone but… That was Saturday. Saturday, Sunday the communication’s got shorter and shorter, he wasn’t able to speak easily. I think it was the next day, on Sunday, he called me and said, please just talk to me, I need to be distracted, because he was having oxygen, it was getting harder for him to…he was feeling worse.

Then on Monday the silences were getting longer and longer and on Monday probably at around midday, my husband called me again and said that he couldn’t talk but there was a nurse standing next to him who told me that he had been examined by intensive care. That they were going to move him to intensive care and that he would probably be put on a ventilator and that somebody would call me when he was being taken to intensive care. And I asked her several times, will someone let me know when he leaves the ward and will someone let me know when he’s ventilated and she said yes. Several hours passed, I obviously have three kids so I was at home alone with the three kids. We were trying to distract ourselves and as the hours went by, it got harder and harder to wait to hear news, obviously my husband was no longer replying.

 

Donna phoned the hospital to see why Simon had not texted them to find out he had been ventilated.

Donna phoned the hospital to see why Simon had not texted them to find out he had been ventilated.

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I have had a conversation recently with a doctor and a unit manager, because when he was ventilated, we didn’t get the call. My daughter said, oh, have you heard from Dad this morning? This was the Saturday morning on 16th of January. I said, oh no. Normally he would say, are you awake? It was about ten o’clock or whatever. I said, oh no, I haven’t, I’ll phone the hospital. So, I phoned the hospital and they had to say then they’d ventilated him. So, I have since asked was it a quick decision because obviously he was unwell with his oxygen levels, was it a quick during the night, unwell in the morning, did he know? And I have been told since that… Because nobody phoned me. I phoned them. Which was fine. It wasn’t a complaint it was just the fact that I phoned them… He would have obviously given consent. I’ve been told it would have been mentioned at some stage that if we need to do these processes can we do them, and he would have given consent obviously because he wanted to get better. I think I just found it a bit of a shock where we didn’t know he’d been ventilated, but people have said to me it would have been done quick, they’d have had to get the anaesthetist down and then they should literally do it. They can’t start ringing round everybody saying is that all right, and because he would have given consent, obviously he was conscious and he had capacity, I’m assuming that… It’s just for us we didn’t get a…not a goodbye. I got a goodbye the night before, as all the family members did, but we didn’t get a final goodbye because that was it, he was ventilated. So, we feel that’s a little bit of a strange one really. But I have talked to the hospital about that.

Waiting by the phone

During the peaks of the pandemic, clinical staff were sometimes so overwhelmed they were unable to establish frequent contact with family members. This was extremely hard for family members who were not allowed to visit.

 

Stephanie found not having any contact with her husband and not being able to be there with him the hardest.

Stephanie found not having any contact with her husband and not being able to be there with him the hardest.

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The worst thing was not being able to see him but obviously working in the National Health Service I, I know, I knew the reasons why I, you know, I wasn’t but that was the worst thing. Especially, I mean before he was ventilated we could contact each other and via sort of WhatsApp calls and Zoom but after he went on the ventilator obviously there was no contact whatsoever. And I’m, I always think I’m a bit of a tough cookie when emotionally but this absolutely floored me, absolutely I, I could, I wouldn’t wish it on my worst enemy, it was awful and I had all this when he, when got onto the ventilator. I was thinking I didn’t know how much awareness he may have because obviously they’d lighten the sedation on a regular basis to check the neurological signs. And I thought is he gonna think I’ve abandoned him, you know, I knew in my head that he wouldn’t but yeah I wasn’t really thinking logically at the time. So I mean I even got to the stage where I said to the, I said to the nurse I need a Zoom call. I need to see him even though he was unconscious because in my head I was thinking I don’t believe he’s still alive having been through four organ failures, sepsis etc. and that was, that was really traumatic. Really traumatic because when I actually saw, and I’m used to looking at people in intensive care on a regular basis, he actually really did look dead and it was, it was horrendous.

 

Kate found it incredibly difficult when a film crew was allowed into ICU when she was not.

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Kate found it incredibly difficult when a film crew was allowed into ICU when she was not.

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So, you couldn’t go with your husband in the ambulance, obviously?

No.

I wouldn’t have been able to go anywhere anyway, ‘cause the kids were at home, and there would have been no one to, and we were in lockdown. What got hard was that I couldn’t see him, and I couldn’t talk to him, and I couldn’t be with him when he was sick. That, I found really hard. And my best friend, you know, she’s just brilliant, she came and picked up all his stuff, twice she came and got stuff, ‘cause I couldn’t leave the house, ‘cause we had Covid in the house, obviously. But it was really, really hard not being with him, really hard.

It was also one of the hospitals, they had a local celebrity in doing a programme during this particular episode, filming ITU, whilst he was there, and filming around the Covid wards. And the resentment I felt, because they would let a film crew in to, it felt voyeuristic, to film what was going on, but I couldn’t be with my husband, and that was not okay.

They were really welcoming of it, because they wanted to showcase the work that was going on in the local hospital. But what they weren’t getting is that I couldn’t be with my husband who could have died.

And I know it was necessary that, you know, they needed to showcase the work that was going on. But I couldn’t be with my husband. I couldn’t even get a message to him, because the communication was so poor, and because it was so early on in the pandemic, they didn’t have the iPads, they didn’t have those means of being able to contact and have those conversations. Yeah. I was really angry about that. I still resent that actually, it’s not good.

I remember being on the phone to my colleague whose husband had died years ago, saying, how dare they? How dare they do that and bring equipment in and have this celebrity in showing, look at what we’re doing, look at what we’re doing, and I can’t even go in and hold his hand?

 

Elizabeth’s husband was in ICU in early 2021. A nurse herself, she understood why contact was scarce, but it was nevertheless very difficult.

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Elizabeth’s husband was in ICU in early 2021. A nurse herself, she understood why contact was scarce, but it was nevertheless very difficult.

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Can you tell me a bit about how you were in touch with your husband when you went into hospital, because you weren’t allowed to accompany him, is that right?

Yeah. We weren’t allowed any contact. By phone, by text. I sometimes think, should I have phoned him, but then I thought I’ve looked after people who are breathless, I have seen people in acute respiratory distress. But if he had been able to talk to me, he would have phoned me. But we texted. There were a couple of days where I didn’t hear anything from him at all. They did mention that we had the option of – oh gosh I can’t remember what it’s called – Facetime but it never came about. As I said at that time, we were able to have a few texts. But no, I never spoke to him, never saw him, until that night he died.

That makes it so difficult I think, no?

It’s really…I understood it. I did understand it. And coming from my background I always felt sorry for the nurses. I had been in that situation, maybe not as bad, but I’ve phoned people up at 4 o’clock in the morning who I don’t know and told them the worst type of news. So, I was always aware that nurses were absolutely dealing with these critically ill patients and not knowing the families.

Clinicians would call when they could, or at the end of their shifts. Many family members we spoke to described waiting by the phone for hours and days on end. Their days revolved around receiving a phone call from ICU, with a lot of anxiety about when it would come and what would be said.

 

Donna sat by the phone for 20 days, afraid to miss a call, and only asked staff to call her daughter when she had to be elsewhere.

Donna sat by the phone for 20 days, afraid to miss a call, and only asked staff to call her daughter when she had to be elsewhere.

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I literally from the time Simon went into hospital I took the phone by the bed, obviously, all day with me, in the shower, because I was so frightened, I was going to get a phone call to say could you come now. I didn’t want to miss it. I had a couple of appointments at the hospital. One was my vaccine. So, my daughter then took the calls from the hospital, and actually that was quite a nice relief for me because I couldn’t take the phone so I knew they couldn’t phone me with bad news. It was quite nice when somebody else had the phone. So, when they phoned my daughter that sort of took it off me a little bit, because I was waiting for bad news.

Does that mean they were calling you on the landline?

Yeah, they were calling me on the landline or the mobile, but on a couple of occasions where I had the appointments at the hospital myself, they called my daughter, because I said I’ve got a couple of appointments, if you can’t get hold of me, because I was so frightened, they couldn’t get hold of me, I’m going to be going out, could you call my daughter, so they did. The phone calls were on the landline normally. That’s why I stayed in. I stayed in anyway because of the COVID and the situation. So, I was here.

After your quarantine for your own Covid positive test you also stayed in, you were saying.

Yeah. I can’t remember how long. I didn’t go out. Because I’m never off work. I literally just sat by this phone from 29 December when I was ill, and Simon went in on 5 January, and I literally sat by the phone a good 20 or more days, or more than that. I literally just sat here. Because you are frightened of missing the calls. Even though you know that they’re going to get hold of you, but I thought oh, what if, what if. You’re frightened of missing the calls all the time. And Sophie felt the same, when she had the calls, she was frightened of missing any calls.

Several people said the hardest thing was ‘not knowing’. With her husband in hospital, Paula said, “That Friday night [when we had heard that Victor may not survive], what was probably the worst for me and [my son] Rob, was the not knowing. It’s the waiting on a phone call. Because, you know, I would think that if he was in that situation pre-Covid, that you would be allowed to sit up there with your loved one, which we weren’t. I hadn’t seen him for four, five weeks. …So, I think that was the worst time.”

Family members understood very well that communication from the hospital was intermittent and fragmented due to the unusually high numbers of patients and low numbers of staff. The pressure on the NHS was frequently reported on the television, radio and other news platforms. Knowing this made it harder for family members to call the hospital for progress reports, as they did not want to burden staff or take time away from patient care. Many family members called the hospital, although they were often reluctant to do so, or felt guilty. Some like Mike never called, but always waited for doctors to call them (see also ‘Contact between family members and clinical staff’.

 

Unable to be with her partner in hospital, Stephanie’s life revolved around getting information.

Unable to be with her partner in hospital, Stephanie’s life revolved around getting information.

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I would say I’m mentally extremely stable under normal circumstances but I’d got to the stage where, when he was at his worst I was phoning up the hospital probably about four times a day at certain times when I knew that they weren’t quite as busy. Just to get sort of updates and when it came time for me to phone I’d, it was like got to sort of an hour or two before I’d start to get a little bit anxious because I was just dreading what they were going to say. Then to get to the stage where I was actually on the phone and the phone was ringing and I was almost having panic attacks sometimes because I was just so nervous and anxious about what they were going to say. Because there was, there was no, it was, it was a roller-coaster some days he’d be improving and they’d be saying oh yeah really stable, some improvement and he’s doing well and then the next time I’d phone he’d gone downhill again. I just never knew what, what they were going to say and that, that as horrendous to, to cope with, you know, the stress of just not knowing. And so yeah that was pretty much what my life was like then.

 

Mike always waited for doctors to call him, because he did not want to be imposing.

Mike always waited for doctors to call him, because he did not want to be imposing.

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Did you ever call the hospital?

No. No, because. I don't like imposing on people you're professional, very busy people and I wouldn't want to do your job for all the tea in China. And I had no right to. If there was ever a day, there was there was one day we didn't get a phone call. I didn't get a phone call and I was worried to desperation about it. So, the daughters kept saying, have you had the phone call? Have you had the phone call yet? And I said no in the end they rang up for me 'cause I couldn't do it. I couldn't do it. It was too hard. I don't like interfering with people you know if you're busy. I was always told if you want something done, ask someone who's busy. That's very, very true. But professional people that are busy like yourselves and your profession. I don't think I have a right. I don't feel I have a right to impose myself upon you. There might be a day when they need you or meal. But if I've just got a question, I find that imposing. Yes.

But I'm like that with everybody. If I want something done, I'll do it myself, but I won't ask anybody.

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