• OMSG Editor

You Look Like a Spaceman

Updated: Feb 21, 2021

Gabriel Bickler, Wadham College

…which, to be fair, I did. Waiting to see your relative, only to be greeted on a screen by just a pair of eyes behind a respirator and visor is perhaps not the most personal way to start a Skype call. As in other parts of the Trust, indeed, across the country, video calling is only way for most patients to have meaningful contact with friends and family. For the past 6 weeks, along with the other Heart Centre FiY1s, I have been enabling patients on the HDU to have that critical connection with home via Skype.

This is all simple except for when it invariably isn’t.

Take step one. You may not have tried to talk to someone wearing an oxygen mask. It is next to impossible to hear someone in that position even when they are not struggling to breathe. Even without the mask the concept can be confusing for our older patients; I have on several occasions had to rescue relatives from spending a video call placed screen-down on the patient’s stomach.

While I stand by the view that there is an inverse relationship between IT literacy and age, I am always finding exceptions to the rule. For example, while attempting to offer a Skype call to an elderly gentleman, he produced his smartphone and deftly started a Facebook call with his friend, asking me whether I wanted to speak to him.

Many of our patients, however, need someone to hold the tablet in front of them the entire time. These patients are of course the sickest, and, to put it bluntly, they have a very slim chance of getting better. Though relatives are permitted to visit dying patients it often just isn’t possible, and so at some point all of us helping with this project have – standing, holding a tablet – been witness to a patient’s last conversation with their family.

The hardest part of these conversations might be knowing when to end them. Again, this is not something anyone would normally have to do, but alone in the room with the patient I find myself the only person who can judge if they are getting too tired or breathless to talk, balancing this against not wanting to curtail their precious contact. During the first of these conversations it was a relief when the radiographer came in – I had the decision to end the call made for me – but at other times you just have to take cues from the patient and what their family are saying.

As with the work-from-home revolution or prime ministerial epiphanies about the value of the NHS, I hope that the pandemic can teach us something. I think we can learn that not just our communication with a patient, but also their ability to talk with their loved ones is a core part of patient care; it used to be face-to-face discussions, but for the time being it is phone calls and Skype chats. That may seem novel and even impersonal, but faced with the prospect of patients not seeing their relatives in those worst of times, we should all be doing it. Just try to avoid looking like a spaceman and scaring the person on the other end of the call.