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Hospices adjust to COVID-19 as they comfort El Pasoans in their final days

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Hospice care agencies have had to adjust their employees’ and volunteers’ work schedules and services with the COVID-19 pandemic hitting the border region. 

People in the latter days of their lives receive care, compassion, and support from hospice agencies. These health-care workers are aware of this vital human need even in these stressful times.

Since its inception in 1978 and opening its doors in 1981, Hospice El Paso has taken care of many patients in El Paso through a continuum of care, respect, and love.

Tina-Marie Hew Len-Castro, chief operating officer of Hospice El Paso, said they keep up with guidelines offered by city, county, and state officials as well as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

“We implemented a health screening process,” Len-Castro said. “No one can get past our front door without going through it. After people get tested, then they have to wear a fluorescent wristband to confirm that they have been tested. Our human resources department put together programs regarding the use of PPE (personal protective equipment).”

Helping family members and hospice patients see one another is something Len-Castro focused on making happen.

“When you go to the hospital, you are not allowed in except when they are dying,” she said. “Our team got together and when our patients go to the Center for Compassionate Care, we allow four visitors in at a time. We had a lot of people involved in this decision. We increased the number of people allowed in the room and don’t allow anyone in the common areas.”

Reassuring at-home patients, families

Amy Selph, case manager for Hospice El Paso, said they have worked on making sure at-home patients and families know that they are still important and loved even in the midst of COVID-19. 

“For our at-home patients, what we’ve done is reassure them by making accommodations with families,” Selph said. “We go over once per week; for some families, we’re in their homes every other week.”

A volunteer painted a Dallas Cowboys helmet on the window of a patient being cared for by Hospice of El Paso. (Photo courtesy of Hospice of El Paso)

Selph said most nursing homes and other locations stopped allowing visitors in to see family members in March. 

“What we did as a collective group at Hospice El Paso is decide to let family members come in and see their loved ones in their last dying days,” she said. “It’s important to let these loved ones know when their families are present.”

Selph admits that it’s hard on hospice patients when they can’t have regular visits with family members. “If mom or dad is in a facility and in hospice and they haven’t seen them even in their dying days, then that’s truly hard,” she said.

Loved ones who live away from El Paso also have to deal with issues involving plane trips.

“Those family members would already be here,” Selph said. “Flying may be risky. Family members at home don’t have people around for relief. That gets a little bit awkward.”

Chris Hardman, spokesman for Elara Caring Network, which oversees Cima Hospice in East El Paso, said the COVID-19 pandemic presented unique challenges for Elara Caring and the home health-care industry at large.

“While our patients needed services more than ever, they were also severely at risk of exposure and required reassurance that they can remain healthy while being cared for,” Hardman said. “Elara Caring led the industry in launching our telehealth services, which allows patients to receive the compassionate care they expect remotely.

“Our patients now have access to the quality care they deserve in a way that minimizes person-to-person contact and still allows them to continue their usual services,” he said. “In addition, our caregivers remain safe and protected while getting the job done.”

Volunteers step up to help

Len-Castro and Selph said volunteers for Hospice El Paso painted windows outside patients’ rooms with different colors and wrote messages of hope on them, too.

“Volunteers are going out to nursing homes so anyone who doesn’t want to do phone calls and they will decorate windows for them,” Len-Castro said. “We’ve partnered with some of the schools in the area and had people from elementary schools make cards and delivered them.” 

Nallely Ramirez is a volunteer for Hospice of El Paso. (Photo courtesy of Hospice of El Paso.)

Hospice El Paso volunteer coordinator Virginia Gonzalez runs the Sunshiner Program, which was created specifically for patients and families who cannot make physical contact during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Gonzalez, in an email shared by Len-Castro, said volunteer Nallely Ramirez spent time painting the window of a patient — who used to be a shoemaker — that included a pair of boots.

As hospice agencies adjust and change in these times, making sure a person’s heart and soul are nurtured and cared for remain as important as ever.

Cover photo: Hospice of El Paso volunteer Nallely Ramirez painted a pair of boots on the window of a former shoemaker being cared for by Hospice of El Paso. (Photo courtesy of Hospice of El Paso)

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Joe Rutland

Joe Rutland is a freelance journalist who lives in El Paso. He's a former assistant city editor with The El Paso Times and has worked for newspapers in Texas and Arizona as a reporter, columnist, and copy editor.

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