NBC News

Patients are facing very isolating experiences when they are admitted into the hospital now. They have minimal human contact and physical touch from their providers and much more isolation, due to the “no visitor” rule. 

And the amount of PPE required to keep a medical worker safe has created a physical barrier to the human connection between patients and healthcare workers. With masks, goggles and face shields, patients can no longer see the warmth, smile or care from their health providers during this already lonely experience. Medical workers look like “expressionless staff in space suits.” 

My husband and I are EMTs and we have recently been fitted for an N100 that gives us better protection but makes us look like aliens. I worry about what it feels like when patients first see us and the emotional barrier it creates. 

I am sure, like everything in this pandemic, we will get used to it. Humans are incredibly adaptable. But even if we get used to the visual, there are many studies to support the healing impact of human interaction and touch. 

Studies have shown that health care providers can help patients heal simply by interacting with competence and warmth. Sadly, in this pandemic, not only is there minimal touch, but patients can’t see the smiles or empathy of their care providers that is so important to the healing process. 

“Pictures for patients” bring a glimpse of their families to their bedside

Many caring providers are coming up with innovative ways to strengthen the human connection and combat isolation during this pandemic. 

Jeanna Barbieri, Boston ER nurse from Lowell General Hospital, felt helpless seeing her patients fight for their life and sometimes die alone. When she realized they weren’t allowed to see their families at this trying time, she found a way to bring their loved ones’ smiling face to them. She launched an effort to minimize loneliness by printing pictures of friends and family and taping them near patients’ beds.

PPE Portrait Project reveals the people behind all that protective gear

Cati Brown-Johnson, a researcher at Stanford University who has studied the role of compassion in medicine, came up with a solution to bring some emotional connection back to patients. She printed smiling headshots that providers could attach to the outside of their protective clothing so patients can see who is behind the gowned anonymous worker. 

It was an idea initially thought up by Mary Beth Heffernan during the Ebola 2014 outbreak. “Wouldn’t they be less frightening if the person on the inside was pictured on the outside?” she explained. That was the start of the PPE Portrait Project, which is adding immense human connection during this isolating pandemic.

By Katherine J. Wu, SMITHSONIANMAG.COM @StanfordDeptMed #PPE 

The photos not only lift patients’ spirits, but also of health care workers. Photos are attached at heart level, since care comes from the heart. 

“When they drove up to me [for testing], I would introduce myself and point to my picture saying, ‘This is me under all this,’” Nurse Anna Chico said. “One patient actually said, ‘I love your picture.’ It enhanced my interaction with them, since they could see me and not just a full suit of PPE.”  

Doctors say the photos put them in higher spirits too, making them feel more like they are “working with people, with my team, instead of inanimate objects,” according to Hyperallergic.  

The Washington Post reported that isolation is directly linked to many health issues including high blood pressure, chronic inflammation, and weakened immune systems. But the study also revealed something hopeful: human connection—in the simple form of looking at a picture of someone you love or a kind word from a stranger—can ease pain and reduce physical symptoms of stress. Bolstering the immune system. 

 “Especially for COVID-19 patients needing ICU care, some worry that a lack of human connection can have adverse effects beyond simple satisfaction or patient experience measures. Isolated ICU patients may develop post intensive-care syndrome, which mimics PTSD with sometimes debilitating consequences,” Brown-Johnson says.

This idea is spreading across the state and nationwide as well. Heffernan thinks there’s a chance that some version of the PPE Portrait Project may someday become a medical mainstay.  

Highlight of the Week: A simple idea with important benefits

Photos on healthcare workers are designed to reduce suffering and improve health outcomes.  Hear straight from Cati Brown-Johnson on why she started  the COVID-19 PPE portrait project. She says, “A warm and competent provider is going to activate in you, as the patient, your body’s own healing mechanisms.”

Challenge of the Week:  Always wear a smile

Remember to always smile. It makes you feel better. It brings positivity to everyone around you. 

One of the downsides of wearing a mask is that people can’t see you smile. But keep smiling whether they can see it or not. They can feel it . . and so can you.

Kendall Webb, Executive Director

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