Technology Helped My Dad Die with Dignity

The pandemic has made us rely on tech for almost everything. Even death.

By Cara Bedford

As an employee of CompuVision, it is fair to say that I am rather tech-savvy. It is part of my job to understand new and emerging technologies and products, and figure out how they can help our team and our customers. Since the pandemic started almost one year ago, the entire CompuVision team has helped clients understand how to best use technology to work from home and keep business active remotely.

However, I never thought I’d have to learn how I could use technology to stay connected with my dying father while he was isolated in a hospital room. I am very familiar with virtual calls (Teams, Zoom, Google Meets), and now I know how to livestream a funeral and virtually coordinate a death certificate. 

In Fall 2020 my dad contracted COVID-19 and was admitted to hospital. Twelve hours after being admitted, he found himself in the ICU. Hospital restrictions during COVID-19 prevent visitors. Like so many others who have experienced a similar situation, it was heartbreaking to have to contend with the fact that a loved one was dying and I could not be at his side. Nothing was normal, nothing about it was how you think death should be. I wanted to rush to the hospital and spend whatever time was left with him, and instead I was sitting at home not really sure what to do with myself. That inability to act was extremely hard for someone like me.  

I figured that there must be some way for me to connect with my dad. Virtual communication has become so commonplace in our homes and workplaces during the pandemic, why not in hospitals? I first asked the hospital if the hospital had anything set up for communication. I read many hospitals had iPads for these instances. I was told that there was an iPad but it would need to be located; they were busy and they would try their best. Two days later, the iPad had not been located and my dad’s oxygen levels dropped; I knew time wasn’t on our side. 

I asked my dad’s caregivers at the hospital if I could give them an Amazon Echo device to put in his room, which would enable two-way calling with the “drop-in” feature so that we could stay in touch without bothering anyone. I promised to call the nurses station for permission before using the device, so as to not interfere with any of their duties in the room. This would also allow the nurse overseeing my father to not have to waste PPE to suit up to go into the room with a device every time we wanted to connect.

The hospital was hesitant; there was no precedent for this sort of request. They didn’t want the device to become a burden for the overwhelmed nurses. There were a myriad of privacy reasons. And they didn’t fully understand what the device could do and how I would be using it.

Not understanding technology often leads to a fear of technology. But not understanding something is not a good reason to not try it; every good leader and entrepreneur knows that doing something simply because “it’s the way it’s always been” can be detrimental. The pandemic has shown us that this is a good time for learning to understand and adapt to new ways of doing things. The pandemic is the time to rethink how things are done. 

According to a story in Business Insider in May 2020, Mount Sinai health system in New York City installed Google Nest smart home cameras in some patient rooms in order to enable health care providers to virtually “visit” the patient, saving time, removing the need for PPE, and removing the risk of transmission.

“The Mount Sinai project highlights how smart home technology can help hospitals cope with the impacts of the coronavirus,” Hirsh Chitkara wrote. “In response to the pandemic, hospitals are looking for ways to make operations more efficient and to minimize patient-clinician contact. . . smart home products are particularly well-suited for delivering remote healthcare within hospitals. They are often designed with accessibility in mind, which can help hearing-, visual-, or mobility-impaired patients.”

While healthcare budgets and privacy concerns are obvious barriers to the widespread adoption of smart home tech within hospitals, Mount Sinai is one example of effectively using smart home devices in healthcare settings. There are already some positive steps towards this: In the United States, Google and Amazon have already established compliance with the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act; in Canada, there are several examples of health care and wellness practitioners pivoting to offer virtual services during the pandemic. My hope is that smart home technology can become an accepted and widely-used technology within Canadian hospitals for both healthcare practitioners and the patients alike.

After several discussions with hospital staff, and pleading with the hospital administrators, I was able to sign a waiver and was permitted to have an Amazon Echo device in my father’s room. We had to disable or delete any recording features, and always call the nurses’ station for permission before using it.

I cannot begin to describe how great this was. The first time I saw my dad by connecting to the device was the first time I had seen him in the five days since he had been admitted. He was in induced coma and on a ventilator, but I was finally “there.”
My family was scared, stressed, and sad, but having the ability to virtually talk to him, play him music (my dad loved Andrea Bocelli), and just “be” in the room with him alleviated some of the pain and uncertainty. I hope he felt less alone, too.

What was really great was once the staff understood the technology, we found ways to really make it work for us both. Many of the nurses thanked us for eliminating the risk they face every time they have to go into the room of a COVID-19 patient for prolonged periods of time to set up the shared iPad. My family and I ended up donating the Amazon Echo device to the hospital in hopes that they might use it for another family in need. 

A poll conducted by Environics Research in July 2020 shows that two-thirds (65%) of Canadians aged 65 and older now own a smartphone, and 23% now use video-calling on their smartphones (which is twice as many as in 2019). This is good news, but there are still many people in this at-risk age group who potentially do not have access to, or do not understand how to use, smart technologies. I understand that for many people, what I did would not be possible.

On the day of my father’s death, I sat with my husband in our living room. Our immediate family huddled around their screens and we watched while my father took his last breaths. We got to say our good-byes as a family together, through an internet-enabled device connecting two worlds that were drastically different from one another. This is more than most families get during COVID-19, and I am so grateful for the technology that allowed this to happen. It was a gift. 

I don’t want anyone to have to go through the experience of losing a loved one to COVID-19 alone in a hospital room. But the reality is that I will not be the last person to go through this. As long as the pandemic persists, and even beyond, tech can help someone die with dignity and stay connected to loved ones, while alleviating some feelings of being alone, or of dying alone.

Every part of our lives has become virtually connected, why not death?

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