image of Spiritual Health Practitioner with iPad
Small screens are having a big impact on patient-family connection in this COVID-19 environment, says Spiritual Health Practitioner Tim De Jonge.

As COVID-19 continues to separate patients and loved ones due to hospital visiting restrictions, Elizabeth Leonard found a way to be with her dying mother, a crucial and profound time that the virus did not steal from her thanks to the power of virtual visiting.

Virtual visits have been ramping up quickly at Kingston Health Sciences Centre as a way of helping patients and families stay connected during the COVID-19 outbreak.  Set up with iPads loaded with video-call software, patients are logging quality time with family members in the Intensive Care Unit, Emergency Department, Medicine units, Mental Health Program and Child Life Program.

Close to the heart of the virtual visiting program are KHSC’s Spiritual Health Practitioners (SHPs), who facilitate calls between patient and family and then often stand by to lend support. 

That was exactly what Leonard needed and received from SHP Tim De Jonge.

“My elderly mother wasn’t very responsive but I still felt very close and actually in the room with her every day for the week before her death,” says the Florida-based Leonard, who could not travel to Kingston and who shared the visits with an out-of-town brother. 

“Even from so far away the atmosphere was safe and comforting thanks to Tim, who let me share my feelings and visit with my mom in a very personal way.  He made a sad and difficult time much easier to handle.  When my mother died I had a sense of closure that I wouldn’t have had otherwise.” 

For his part, De Jonge was honoured to be present with Elizabeth and her mother.

“Were it not for the pandemic, Elizabeth would have been at her mother’s side, holding her hand,” he says. “It was a sacred privilege for me to facilitate a meaningful connection between Grace and Elizabeth, to pray with them through the technology and to give Grace a final blessing before she died. And the video call reassured Elizabeth that her mother was receiving good care in her final days.”

Virtual visiting has been a godsend, say the SHPs, because it brings people together at a vulnerable time when they most need the healing power of relationship.

SHP James Graham cites the example of one panicked family, with members spread across several Canadian and U.S. cities, who were unable to physically reach their mother after emergency surgery.  He facilitated a virtual connection, including the important first step of preparing them for what they would see when their mom appeared on screen hooked up to IV lines and beeping monitors.

“The family was under incredible stress and the visit went a long way to alleviating their anxiety,” he says. “I’ve seen spouses and children whispering their love to a dying parent and patients blowing kisses to family members.  You see very tender moments that sometimes reduce nearby staff almost to tears.  That little iPad screen is a powerful tool for connecting.”

Since late March, with the support of KHSC’s Information and Project Management teams, the SHPs have handled almost 110 virtual visits, sometimes averaging up to five in a single day. 

Some visits involve emergency or end-of-life care, while others help patients to reconnect with family or boost their hopes about soon heading home. SHP Isaiah Dada has watched a patient’s spirits noticeably lifted when the family pet filled the screen, ears perked up at the sound of their owner’s voice, and he has seen an estranged parent and child start talking again thanks to virtual visits.

“We’ve all been witnessing some profound moments in people’s lives,” says SHP Janeta Kobes. “It’s a privilege to facilitate and experience this kind of connection.”

Facing a physical health challenge can be a time of great vulnerability, says Neil Elford, KHSC Director for Spiritual Health, and relationships play a powerful healing role for both patient and family.

“Virtual visits can close more than geographical distances,” he says.  “They’re helping to make connections happen that would otherwise not occur.  That can mean spiritual healing all around.”

“We know that nothing can ever replace the comfort of having family physically close when you’re ill or nearing end of life in hospital,” says Valerie Gamache-O’Leary, KHSC Chief Information Officer.

“However, having the technology to see and hear a loved one is an option that’s bringing many patients and families close together at this time.  It’s all about keeping them at the centre of care, which is the mission of KHSC every day.”

Learn more about virtual visits and how to request one here.