“Please don’t go”: My family’s experience of hospitalisation during COVID-19

Visiting a family member in hospital is always hard, but during a pandemic it becomes unnerving. (Image source: InDaily/AAP)

By Eva Blandis | @BlandisEva

On June 20, Mel Smith, my aunt, was admitted to the Royal Adelaide Hospital (RAH), with another bout of Pneumonia and a collapsed lung. After Christmas, when Mel was in the ICU for 10 days, my family had been living in fear of the same thing happening again.

Mel, 64, was diagnosed with pulmonary arterial hypertension in 2017, meaning that her heart and lungs are weaker than usual. So, when COVID-19 came along, Mel was considered a vulnerable person.

As the pandemic worsened, Mel’s, and our family’s anxiety increased as we became aware of how easily germs spread. We kept our distance when all we wanted to do was comfort each other, and hoped that she had no medical complications.

The biggest fear, apart from Mel contracting COVID-19, was that she would be hospitalised during the outbreak and we wouldn’t be able to visit her. Once the pandemic calmed down in Adelaide, and we reached zero active cases, we all felt a huge sense of relief.

But when hospitalised in late June, Mel was forced to experience life in the RAH during a pandemic.

“It was very unnerving not knowing what was going to happen,” she said.

As her illness is respiratory related, Mel was taken to the isolation ward upon arrival to undergo testing. During her short stay in this ward, no one could visit her. It was tough for my Mum, who felt as if she needed to see Mel to get a good idea of how unwell she was. Luckily, we could look and wave to her through a window.

Throughout this experience, we were all extremely understanding as we realise seriousness of the pandemic.

We never fought the fact that we couldn’t see her in person, but I can understand that if someone had a family member in a more serious condition, it would be unbearable.

Luckily, this was during a time when we had no active cases, so we knew that there was a light at the end of the tunnel, and we would be able to see her when the test came back negative.

Once Mel was cleared of COVID-19 she was sent to the Intensive Care Unit (ICU). In December, when Mel was last in the RAH’s ICU, she was allowed two visitors at a time, but at any time. This changed with COVID-19 as visits were restricted between the hours of 10am and 12pm, and between 6pm and 8pm. Once again, this was understandable, but it was incredibly hard when all we wanted to do was comfort her.

Fortunately, in the ICU, patients are appointed a nurse for all hours of the day, so it’s less lonely than if you’re in a ward.

“They look at you constantly … having them there is quite comforting,” Mel said.

But, when things got really bad, all Mel wanted was to be surrounded by family, and all we wanted was to be there for her.

One day, when Mum and I went in, Mel was struggling more than usual. She was stable but feeling down. We arrived after 10am, and told her we couldn’t stay past 12pm. That’s when she said to us, “Please don’t go.”

When on high levels of pain medication due to immense pain and discomfort, Mel wasn’t in her right mind and wasn’t thinking of the restrictions. All she was doing was focusing on herself. Having to tell her that we couldn’t stay broke our hearts, and I can only imagine how hard it would’ve been for people who couldn’t visit their loved ones during the peak of the first wave.

Not being able to spend time with your family member in hospital, and comfort them is probably one of the most horrible feelings in the world. During good days it was a lot easier for Mel to understand the importance of us leaving, especially considering the circumstances.

“I knew I had one job, and that was to get better,” she said.

Despite the emotional hardship of being hospitalised during a pandemic, Mel said that the “hygiene was paramount” and that she always felt safe with how the doctors and nurses operated.

Once admitted to a ward, the regulations eased, and visits were easier to coordinate. However, for Mel, the quietness of the hospital was weird and made her feel isolated.

There was no “hustle and bustle of a usual hospital” she said. 

Although being hospitalised during a pandemic is extremely hard, Mel successfully got through the hard times by making it her priority to get better.

Toward the end of Mel’s stay, the visiting became stricter as the COVID-19 crisis continued to worsen in Victoria. According to the RAH’s website, they now ask for patients to only have one visitor per day.

Mel needed to be getting the best care possible, and if that meant that we had to limit our visiting times, then we put up with it. We are all lucky that we didn’t have to face the situation during the peak of the first wave in Adelaide, and that we were still able to visit Mel on occasions.

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