Jenny Chang ’11 started seeing COVID-19 patients show up in her emergency room in Manhattan in mid-March. “We were seeing people young, old, women, men, and of all races just decompensate,” she says. That is, their condition would suddenly deteriorate. “No one knew how to approach it.”
Jenny spent her days scrambling to outsmart the unknown virus, squeezing through hallways jampacked with stretchers, intubated patients, and, often, patients who had recently died. “It was a really hard time,” she says.
One patient, in particular, stood out—an elderly woman from a Bronx nursing home. From the woman’s labored breathing upon arrival in the ER, Jenny suspected her patient wouldn’t survive, and over the next several hours, she quickly deteriorated.
To keep the virus from spreading, patients’ family members had to adhere to a strict no-visitor policy. Outside, the patient’s son waited anxiously to speak with his mother, but she didn’t have a cell phone. Jenny, who works in the ERs at New York’s Jacobi and Montefiore Medical Centers and Jack D. Weiler Hospital, couldn’t use her own phone due to privacy rules.
So she did what she could, delivering a handwritten letter to the woman from her son. “I could see her from my station,” says Jenny. “She was reading and crying, and she closed her eyes.” A day later, the woman died. Jenny couldn’t help but think that at least seeing each other’s faces might have made for a somewhat less painful good-bye. Soon after, she set out to help isolated COVID-19 patients better connect with their loved ones.
“I grappled with this idea that treating the patient with medicine wasn’t really working,” she says. She wanted more for her patients. “I thought, we really have to be there as human beings to comfort and console them and just hold their hand.”
Jenny funneled these feelings into an initiative she started to collect donated iPads so patients could see their families over FaceTime. She received several dozen used and new donated devices, many from fellow Wellesley alumnae. Because of the devices, patients were no longer suffering and dying alone. They had the chance to say good-bye to family and friends, giving everyone some degree of closure.
“It’s been incredible,” Jenny says. “Every patient and family member that uses one is so grateful.” Word of the initiative spread fast, and Jenny’s effort was implemented at the corporate level. After cases declined in New York, hospitals began opening visitation hours for families, but the iPads are still available for use now, and in case of a surge this winter.
Soon after the iPads started flooding in, another elderly woman arrived in Jenny’s ER with severe COVID-19 symptoms. Jenny asked the woman if she wanted to have a video call with her family, and she watched as family member after family member appeared on screen to pray with the woman. Jenny teared up as the woman’s teenage granddaughter sang an original song she had composed for her grandmother.
“It was one of the most heartbreaking things,” Jenny says. Two days later, the woman died, but Jenny likes to believe she went more peacefully after spending time on the iPad with her family. “She knew she was no longer alone,” Jenny says.