Coronavirus preys on what terrifies us: dying alone
Updated 1606 GMT (0006 HKT) March 29, 2020
(CNN)Steve Kaminski was whisked into an ambulance near his home on New York's Upper East Side last week.
He never saw his family again.
Kaminski died days later of covid-19, the disease caused by the novel coronavirus. Because of fears of contagion, no visitors, including his family, were allowed to see him at Mt. Sinai Hospital before he died.
"It seemed so surreal," said Diane Siegel, Kaminski's daughter in law. "How could someone pass so quickly and with no family present?"
Mitzi Moulds, Kaminski's companion of 30 years, was quarantined herself, having also contracted the coronavirus. She worried Kaminski would wake up and think she'd abandoned him.
"Truthfully, I think he died alone," said Bert Kaminski's, one of Steve's sons. "Even if a doctor was there."
As the coronavirus stalks victims around the world, one of its scariest aspects is how it seems to feed on our deepest fears and prey on our primal instincts, like the impulse to be close to people we love when they are suffering and near death.
In a painful irony, the very thing we need in moments of fear and anxiety could also kill us.
Many hospitals and nursing homes have closed their doors and placed covid-19 patients in isolation wards to prevent the disease from spreading. One doctor called it "the medical version of solitary confinement."
Priests are administering last rites over the telephone while families sit helplessly at home.
The isolation extends beyond coronavirus patients. Amy Tucci, president of the Hospice Foundation of America, estimates that 40% of hospice patients are in hospitals or nursing homes, many of which have placed strict restrictions on visitors. Their families, too, are worried about loved ones dying without them.
"We crave closure," said Maryland psychologist Dr. Kristin Bianchi, "so it's only natural we would want to be there in our loved one's final moments. We want to bear witness to that process and say our last goodbyes."
'Lonely deaths' can haunt us
Something about dying alone seems to haunt us. To some it may suggest the deceased's life lacked love and worth, and that in the end they were forgotten.
The Japanese have a word for this: "kodokushi," meaning "lonely death." In recent days, as funerals have been cancelled or postponed because of the virus, it can seem as if coronavirus victims simply vanished, like people in "The Leftovers."
But some medical experts challenge the idea that scores of people are dying unaccompanied in hospitals right now. In many instances, they said, hospital staff are standing vigil by patients' bedsides during their last moments.
It's not ideal, they say, but they're not quite the lonely deaths we may imagine.
As a lung specialist and member of the Optimum Care Committee at Massachusetts General Hospital, Dr. Emily Rubin is on the frontlines of the pandemic.
The hospital, where 41 employees recently tested positive for coronavirus, does not admit visitors except for limited circumstances, like births -- and, in some cases, for patients near death.
But Rubin said the situation is evolving rapidly as the virus spreads. In some cases, the hospital may connect families and covid-19 victims electronically instead of in person. Other times, nurses and other hospital staff will step in to stand vigil.
"Even if the disease is too mighty, the ethic of not abandoning people is so strong," Rubin said. "We feel like being present with people at the end of life is a huge part of what we do.
"People in a hospital are not dying alone."