CT coronavirus patients dying alone due to hospital restrictions
By Erin Kayata
April 4, 2020
I was recently interviewed for the following article for CTInsider.com.
Mary Roman was a senior Olympian and always looking for the next challenge. Even as she started to exhibit symptoms of the coronavirus last month, the 83-year-old Norwalk resident told her son she was ready for her next track meet.
Craig Roman told his mother she needed to rest. A few days later, Mary Roman had fallen several times and was taken to Norwalk Hospital. Mary Roman died of the coronavirus on March 23. Her family didn’t get to say goodbye since many hospitals have restricted visitors due to the COVID-19 pandemic. The Romans were also not able to hold a proper funeral. With two of her sons quarantined at home due to their contact with her, Mary Roman was buried last weekend in Riverside Cemetery in Norwalk where Craig Roman, his wife, a minister and funeral home staff attended. The rest of the family watched via video chat.
“That was very emotional for us,” Craig Roman said. “My wife, it really hit her. My brothers all still really can’t believe she’s gone. Her dream was to keep competing until she was 100, which we thought she would.”
The Roman family isn’t alone. All over the country, people are dying from COVID-19, the disease caused by the novel coronavirus. But the contagious virus is making these deaths particularly cruel since many family members can’t see their loved ones to help prevent the spread of the virus.
Even those losing loved ones to other causes may not be able to see them one last time due to social distancing guidelines.
“This adds multiple painful layers on top of what’s already painful,” said Dr. Nancie Spector, a clinical psychologist in New Canaan. “If you’re at somebody’s death bed, you go through all that process, but this makes it much less real. ... What I’m hearing from a lot of patients is they feel this is a bad dream or movie and they think they’ll wake up and it’ll be over. It makes it hard to accept the reality of death.”
Craig Roman and his brothers never had the chance to speak to their mother one last time. She was transferred to the intensive care unit a week before she died and was heavily sedated. Craig Roman said he asked the hospital staff if they could bring a phone in the room, but they were told it was too risky.
“They told us...it was unsanitary,” Craig Roman said. “That was the last week while she was in there. It was tough on us. We couldn't talk to her. My brothers couldn't go down and see her or anything.” Rev. Peter Walsh, of St. Mark’s Episcopal Church in New Canaan, performed last rites over the phone for William Pike, a New Canaan resident who was the second person in Connecticut to die from the coronavirus. That was a first for Walsh.
But it wasn’t his last time doing so. Several minutes after hanging up the phone so the Pike family could say their final goodbyes, Walsh received a call from the family of another parishioner who did not have the coronavirus but was dying in a senior center.
“This is going to come our way again,” Walsh said. “I have no doubt about that. I feel we’re good at it. We know what we’re doing and we’re going to do it this way. There will be mourning that will be terrible. FaceTime or Zoom is not totally satisfactory, but it’s the best we can do.”
Norwalk Hospital, where Pike and Roman were treated, has a strict policy. No visitors are allowed in any Nuvance Health facility, which also includes Danbury Hospital; and patients under 21 may only have one parent visit per day. Exceptions can be made, but all approved visitors must be screened for COVID-19 symptoms.
Yale Health Group, which includes Greenwich, Bridgeport and New Haven hospitals, also has a no-visitation policy.
Stamford Hospital, where Stefanie Spadaccini was able to say goodbye to her husband, Anthony, a former Stamford city representative who died from the coronavirus, has recently stopped allowing visitors. There are a few exceptions, including patients in the neonatal intensive care unit, pediatrics can have two parents or guardians, and patients in labor and delivery are allowed a support person. Otherwise, exceptions will only be made on a case-by-case basis.
“Broadly, we’ve temporarily restricted visitation to keep patients and our staff safe,” a hospital spokeswoman said. “These are extraordinary circumstances. That part isn’t fun for us either, but we don’t want people to get sick or transmit disease.”
Spector said it’s important for people to realize the hospital staff is making the patients comfortable in their final moments. “I don’t think people are dying alone,” Spector said. “They’re dying without their families. That’s very important in terms of giving people comfort. They’re not just lying there and dying by themselves.”
A lack of a final goodbye can complicate the grieving process during the pandemic, whether or not a person’s loved one died of the virus, Spector said. When someone dies, it’s tradition to gather together whether that’s for a large funeral, a celebration of life or simply visiting the family of the deceased. Now, that’s not possible due to the restriction on large social gatherings.
“This would be a time when everyone rallies around,” Spector said. “Think about all the customs there are in terms of helping people grieve and get over loss. We can’t engage in those now.”
Craig Roman said Norwalk Hospital did what was necessary for the safety of its patients and staff.
“What the hospital did, not letting people in the ICU to see their loved ones, is for health reasons,” he said. “If they had the virus under control or had some sort of cure, it'd be a different story, but they have none of that in sight. What they did was best for everybody. It’s hard and rough, but they have the public in their interests.”
Craig Roman also said not seeing his mother on a ventilator allows him to remember her as she was most of her life: a lively athlete with a constant will to keep going.
“I’m going to remember her from pictures I have around the house and videos I've seen on Facebook,” he said. “That’s how I'm going to remember my mother.”