Family members grieve as they are separated from husband, father, dying of COVID in ICU

Hospitals limiting visitors to limit the spread of COVID
In his final days, Gary Avery's family had to communicate with him over FaceTime, due to...
In his final days, Gary Avery's family had to communicate with him over FaceTime, due to visitor restrictions at the hospital to limit the spread of COVID-19.(Joy Harman)
Published: Aug. 23, 2021 at 3:42 PM EDT|Updated: Aug. 24, 2021 at 11:26 AM EDT
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WILMINGTON, N.C. (WECT) - It’s a heart wrenching dilemma that people across the country are facing all over again. Families separated from one another after a loved one is hospitalized with COVID-19. WECT spoke to one family going through that trauma, worried the father might die alone.

“No family should have to endure what we’ve been through,” Joy Harman said through tears during a Zoom interview from her home in Pender County.

Joy and her parents were unvaccinated, and when they caught COVID in early August, the symptoms hit Joy’s father, Gary Avery, the hardest. He had a history of kidney disease, which made him more susceptible.

“He’s been in the hospital I don’t know how many times, and every time he’s been there I’ve been able to be right beside him, and feed him, and I’d sleep in a chair beside him and put my hand right on him,” Gary’s wife of 43 years, Marylillie told WECT.

But this time, hospital staff told Marylillie she could not visit him. They’re limiting visitors to limit the spread of infection. Making matters worse, Marylillie and Joy had contracted COVID, too.

“Where is the heart?” Joy said, questioning the hospital’s decision to keep them from visiting her dad. “I want our community safe too. We don’t wish this on anyone. But at the same time, is it really right to just keep your family away? Is it really fair to let your family lay in a hospital bed all alone? Scared. Sick. You know? We are in America.”

Family members grieve as they are separated from husband, father, dying of COVID in ICU (6pm)

“We’ve begged them to just let me go and sit there. I’ve told them I will not leave the room. I’ll just stay right there in his room. I don’t have to leave. I have no reason to leave my husband’s bedside,” Marylillie said.

The doctors and nurses working on the front lines of this pandemic say it’s a tough — but necessary — call.

“If you are COVID positive or you have COVID infection, you are prohibited from visiting. So we have had some visitation, some family members that are actually COVID positive requesting to visit and we say, ‘No.’ That protects our staff, our other patients, and the families that are available,” Dr. West Paul, an internal medicine doctor and Chief Clinical Officer at New Hanover Regional Medical Center explained of the hospital’s policy.

Despite the risk, the hospital is allowing visitors on a case-by-case basis for COVID patients in the Intensive Care Unit at the end of life.

Less than 12 hours after our initial interview with Joy and Marylillie, Gary died. The hospital allowed them to suit up and visit him for 20 minutes in his final hour, but then they had to leave, and Gary died alone.

“I don’t want any other wife to have to go through what I went through with my husband,” Marylillie told WECT a few days after his death. “She should be allowed to be right by her husband and care for him. There’s no way a hospital staff can care every second for him. And I could have.”

As a trained nurse, Marylillie was especially upset to be denied the opportunity to help her husband in his final days.

“We got the phone call that my dad’s lungs had collapsed. And that he was quickly declining. And that they were going to go ahead and put him on life-support,” Joy recalled of the phone call she got from the hospital hours before her dad died. By that point, he was no longer able to interact with them, but the Averys were allowed to come see Gary for a painfully short 20 minute visit.

“We had to put an N95 mask on, we put a head shield, we put a suit over our arms and gloves. And we walked in and we sat with dad,” Joy said. When their time was up, they had to leave, and 15 minutes later, they learned their precious father and husband had passed, alone.

“The contact when they did allow us to see my daddy was no different than the contact would’ve been if they were allowed us to see him when he was well,” Joy said of her frustration over not being able to visit sooner.

The human impact of all of this is gut wrenching for caregivers, too.

“Our providers, our physicians and our nurses, are really having a hard time with this. I mean they are the ones witnessing the death around us, but they also are the ones responsible for caring for our staff and our patients. So they have that dual role and it is incredibly tough to maintain that. To try to make sure they do the right thing with regard not only to the patient but our staff and making sure everyone is safe — it is — it’s very difficult,” Dr. Paul added.

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