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Johns Hopkins medical students help coronavirus patients and their families stay in touch

Ruoxi Yu, left, and Lauren Claus are part of a Johns Hopkins medical school program to serve as advocates for families of pandemic patients. The goal, school leaders said, is to develop empathic and communicative skills of future healthcare providers.
Ruoxi Yu, left, and Lauren Claus are part of a Johns Hopkins medical school program to serve as advocates for families of pandemic patients. The goal, school leaders said, is to develop empathic and communicative skills of future healthcare providers. (Barbara Taylor)

The woman felt helpless.

Her husband, in his 60s, lay in Johns Hopkins Hospital attached to a ventilator and battling the coronavirus. He couldn’t speak; she couldn’t visit. How could she give comfort from a distance and assure him that his loved ones cared?

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Enter Ruoxi Yu, 26, a Hopkins medical student who this spring participated in a pilot program in which she served as an advocate for families of pandemic patients. For two weeks in April, as part of her training, Yu spoke daily with the patient’s wife, for up to 30 minutes, learning his habits and the family’s concerns before passing both on to caregivers in the hospital.

At the family’s request, Yu had their photos placed at his bedside. She made sure his phone was always charged so that his wife could call three times a day. Never mind that the patient couldn’t answer, said Yu: “To the family, it was important that he knew they were thinking of him.”

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Ruoxi Yu is a medical student at Johns Hopkins medical school. She worked as a liaison between patients and families in April. June 18, 2020
Ruoxi Yu is a medical student at Johns Hopkins medical school. She worked as a liaison between patients and families in April. June 18, 2020 (Barbara Haddock Taylor / Baltimore Sun)

It’s all part of an innovative Hopkins project designed to boost the empathetic and communicative skills of tomorrow’s caregivers, while allaying the fears of families barred from visiting the sick during the health crisis.

“The goal is for each student to be the point person for communication with the family,” said Dr. Sarina Sahetya, assistant professor of medicine and faculty co-leader of the project. “Listening is essential, something many doctors are bad at doing. Hopefully this has been a beneficial experience that [students] will take forward with them in whatever path they go.”

Yu was one of two medical students to kick off the program; Lauren Claus, 25, was the other. Each reached out to the families of between six and 12 COVID patients, a number of whom were on ventilators. Some have recovered; others succumbed.

Johns Hopkins medical student Lauren Claus spent two weeks as liaison between families of COVID-19 patients, who could not visit them, and doctors treating their loved ones. She learned the importance of empathy in clinical work while serving as go between relaying the families' concerns to the caregivers.
Johns Hopkins medical student Lauren Claus spent two weeks as liaison between families of COVID-19 patients, who could not visit them, and doctors treating their loved ones. She learned the importance of empathy in clinical work while serving as go between relaying the families' concerns to the caregivers. (Kenneth K. Lam)

“We never provided clinical hope. Nothing we could say could make it better. It was more about listening to the families’ thoughts,” Claus said. “It was helpful for us to provide a platform for them to share their sadness and anxieties.”

Any personal nuggets they gleaned might be relayed to caregivers for banter with patients with whom they could converse.

Ask my husband his thoughts on the NFL draft, a wife said. One man asked if his partner, a Spanish-speaking patient in her 20s, could have Latino Christian music piped into her room. She got it every day thereafter. Families offered up patients’ religious preferences, thankful that hospital chaplains could bless them, if only from the hallways.

“We served as conduits between family and staff,” Yu said.

The experience was a positive for all involved, Claus added.

“We definitely took away lessons that will help us, clinically, in the future,” she said.

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