Healthcare workers hold a tablet in front of a COVID-19 coronavirus patient during a video call with relatives at the Intensive Unit Care (ICU) of the Ramon y Cajal Hospital in Madrid on April 14, 2020.
Oscar Del Pozo — AFP via Getty Images

One text message made Sara Rodell realize how lucky she was to hold a smartphone in her hands.

It arrived in late March, from a friend trying to collect tablets for New York City nurses. She heard that nurses were trying to facilitate video calls for their patients, most of whom were not allowed to accept visitors due to restrictions meant to stop the spread of COVID-19. Patients without their phone or charger, or who simply didn’t own one, were often unable to see their families in some of the hardest — or last — days of their lives.

“Not having that moment of closure is something that is going to be really haunting for us as a society to move through,” Rodell says. “I think it will be a big part of our collective grieving.”

Rodell saw a way to ease the burden. The CEO of Loop & Tie, a platform that helps companies send gifts to their clients, Rodell realized she could use her company’s infrastructure to ship tablets to hospitals to assist with video calls between patients and their loved ones. She and a team of almost a dozen other women, many who have never met face-to-face, joined together as COVID Tech Connect to make it happen.

They began asking companies to donate tablets, and started a GoFundMe to raise money for shipping and extra device purchases. As of late April, they’ve gotten commitments for about 4,500 device donations, raised more than $180,000, and started making shipments to hospitals, focusing first on those in New York City and other particularly hard-hit areas.

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Other groups are also working to foster connections for those suffering alone. Connect for COVID, started by brothers Sunny Sandhu and Manraj Singh, is trying to bring families connection and closure by sourcing lightly-used device donations from individuals, as well as larger donations from organizations. As of late April, they’ve collected more than 250 smart devices and are in talks with a number of large companies interested in donating more.

They got their idea after Sandhu, a senior at Princeton University, self-isolated due to possible COVID-19 exposure. Though physically alone, Sandhu was pleasantly surprised by how connected video chatting made him feel to friends and family around the world. But he quickly realized he “was fortunate enough to have a smart device in my hands [and] many others weren’t.”

After that experience, Sandhu and Singh, a consultant with Deloitte, started asking friends who worked in the medical field if they could use donated smart devices to help patients connect with their families. They got an overwhelming response, and forged partnerships with medical students in cities including Baltimore, New York, Miami, Boston and Washington, D.C.

“Not having a smartphone isn’t a human rights issue,” Singh says. “But dying alone, without your loved ones in your corner, that is.”

Yentli Soto Albrecht, Singh’s college lab partner and a University of Pennsylvania medical student involved with the Philadelphia Organization of Health Professional Students (POHPS), immediately understood the brothers’ vision. Albrecht had just finished an internal medicine rotation at a Philadelphia hospital, and she’d watched its visitor policy go from relaxed to draconian. She got POHPS on board, and is helping coordinate device distribution in Philadelphia.

Fellow POHPS member Stephanie Fagbemi, a medical student at nearby Temple University, also saw the need for tech in hospitals — but for a different reason. In November, her uncle had traveled to the Philippines for an extended vacation. He only had a flip phone, so Fagbemi couldn’t reach him often. She and her family didn’t know until it was too late that he’d been hospitalized for diabetes-related complications. He died before he could make it home to the U.S.

“It’s been really hard for us to actually feel like he’s gone,” Fagbemi says. “That part of the grieving process has been pretty difficult — also the idea that we weren’t able to say goodbye, and we can’t have a funeral.”

Fagbemi is helping POHPS distribute smart devices to Temple hospitals and Philadelphia nursing homes, in hopes of sparing other families from the pain hers has gone through. “It would have been really meaningful for my family just to be able to see my uncle and say ‘I love you’ one last time,” she says.

On the West Coast, residents and medical students at the University of California, San Francisco have come together under the name Connecting During COVID to offer a unique medical consult service. If a doctor or nurse at one of four San Francisco hospitals treats a patient who is isolated from his or her family, the care team can call the group’s student volunteers, who will coordinate a video call for the patient using one of 25 donated tablets. The students are not allowed to visit rooms with COVID-19 patients, but they’ve seen plenty of demand among patients who are hospitalized for other conditions but unable to welcome visitors due to temporary hospital policy.

In some cases, UCSF student Sophie McAllister says, the conversation is more for a seriously ill person’s family than it is for the patient; sometimes the patient isn’t even conscious, but their loved ones want to say goodbye face-to-face anyway. “They just want to have that moment and play music and have these feelings and moments together,” she says. “I’ve cried in patients’ rooms before. It’s really tough being there for this moment you wouldn’t normally have been a part of.”

But, she adds, the pain is a small price to pay for giving patients the connection they deserve. “We’re spending a lot of time [doing things] that brought me to medicine” in the first place, she says.

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