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Virtual Comfort: How patients and families stay connected in the age of coronavirus

A patient at University of Rochester Medical Center smiles during a virtual chat.
University of Rochester Medical Center
A patient at University of Rochester Medical Center smiles during a virtual chat.

Bob Filmore has late stage Alzheimer's disease. 

He was admitted to Strong Memorial Hospital to be treated for an infection. That can be stressful under normal circumstances, but in this time of coronavirus when visitors aren't allowed, everyone the patient encounters is considered a stranger wearing a mask and covered in protective gear.

"So imagine that for an advanced stage Alzheimer's person who really can't make those connections and understand the situation," said Lori Dominico, an assistant nurse manager at the University of Rochester Medical Center. "Quite frankly, he was terrified."

Filmore's medical team was trying to move him onto a stretcher, and he was frightened.

Then, an iPad was placed in front of Fowler so he could see and hear his wife, Judy, sing "You Are My Sunshine" as she played along on her banjo.

"Singing really helps more than talking with him because he likes to sing," Judy said. "He tries to sing opera, and he's got a good voice."

Dominico said it worked.

"As soon as he saw her face on that iPad, you could see relief in him immediately," Dominico recalled. "She said, 'Sing with me, Bob', and he started singing and I literally started crying right there."

Because of the social distancing requirements put into place by hospitals since the coronavirus started spreading locally, it was the first time in weeks Judy laid eyes on her husband of 45 years.

"I wasn't able to visit him for a whole month," Judy said.

An anonymous donor gave The University of Rochester Medical Center 30 iPads to link patients with their families.

Social worker Melissa Christodaro says the devices also give peace of mind to medical teams who are also experiencing stress.

"It's helped the providers and nurses and respiratory therapists know that we are doing everything we can to connect people," Christodaro explained. "It's helped them provide better care so they can go home and sleep and rest at night."

Doctors have been using the iPads to update people on their loved ones' condition, and share care instructions for patients who are being discharged.

Dominico can already see how the devices will be useful even AFTER the hospital starts allowing visitors again.

"We have snowstorms here and people are afraid and they just want to talk to their family members and they can't get in here," she said. "They're perfect for that. I can't tell you how many times I've had a family member calling from another state and they're concerned and anxious. It's the same situation. I could easily put them on an iPad with a patient."

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Beth Adams joined WXXI as host of Morning Edition in 2012 after a more than two-decade radio career. She was the longtime host of the WHAM Morning News in Rochester. Her career also took her from radio stations in Elmira, New York, to Miami, Florida.