Jerusalem's Hadassah hospital says initiative is world first

Potentially virus-proof Israelis deployed to COVID wards to relieve loneliness

Armed with antibodies, recovered patients are venturing back into hospitals to help those in need of company

Nathan Jeffay is The Times of Israel's health and science correspondent

A volunteer visitor who recovered from COVID-19 holds the hand of a patient on a coronavirus ward at Hadassah University Hospital in Ein Kerem, as a hospital employee looks on. (Eli Atias)
A volunteer visitor who recovered from COVID-19 holds the hand of a patient on a coronavirus ward at Hadassah University Hospital in Ein Kerem, as a hospital employee looks on. (Eli Atias)

A Jerusalem hospital says it has become the first in the world to send recovered COVID-19 sufferers into virus wards, no-go areas for most of the population because of infection risk, in order to relieve patients’ loneliness.

The jury is still out on whether people who recover from coronavirus can be reinfected, and if they are immune, how long their protection lasts, but Hadassah University Hospital in Ein Kerem, Jerusalem, has started appealing for them to weigh the risks and consider becoming volunteer visitors.

“It lights up patients’ eyes when they see a visitor,” said Moshe Tauber.

“People were so excited the first time I walked in,” stated Tauber, 22, who was infected three months ago, and has now committed himself to stints of several hours on the ward a few times a week. “They were excited because people there don’t see anyone apart from staff, sometimes for weeks.”

Israeli firefighters in protective clothing disinfect the entrance to the emergency room at Hadassah Hospital Ein Karem in Jerusalem on March 22, 2020. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

Tauber is an ultra-Orthodox yeshiva student, motivated in part by the emphasis that Jewish tradition places on bikur holim, visiting the sick, a mitzvah that most people are unable to carry out in person with COVID-19 sufferers. Of the 25 volunteer visitors on the virus wards, 20 are Haredim, several of them recruited by the ultra-Orthodox Yad Avraham organization that promotes bikur holim.

Rely Alon, Hadassah’s head nurse, said: “People feel so lonely in the coronavirus department, and it’s a great help for patients, and also for staff, that visitors now come, hold patients’ hands, chat with them and keep them company.”

She said that the program was launched three weeks ago, commenting: “We believe this is the first place in the world this is happening, and we’re getting more and more calls from people offering to participate.”

Alon said that the rationale behind appealing for recovered patients is that they have protective antibodies, which are confirmed through testing, though volunteers are told that there are still questions regarding the effectiveness of the antibodies. Given the uncertainty, the volunteers wear hazmat suits.

In Israel, a recent study appeared to bode well for immunity hopes, but there were also reports that a doctor at Ramat Gan’s Sheba Medical Center tested positive for the coronavirus this month, after having recovered from the disease previously.

Moshe Tauber (second from right) and other volunteers who visit patients on the COVID-19 wards at Hadassah University Hospital in Ein Kerem. All of them have recovered from the coronavirus. (courtesy of Hadassah University Hospital in Ein Kerem)

Tauber said he is optimistic about the antibodies, and that he is prepared to take what he considers a small risk in order to volunteer on the wards.

He said that it is the simple interactions that make a difference to patients.

“I make them a cup of tea, sit with them, talk about how they are feeling, and they say it helps them a lot,” he said. The volunteers carry mobile phones and connect elderly patients, who sometimes struggle to operate devices, to family.

Tauber said that as well as bikur holim, he is motivated by a general “dedication to helping people” — which also led him to donate plasma after recovery to assist the recuperation of others.

Prof. Zeev Rothstein, director of Hadassah Medical Center, said that his staff introduced the program after reflecting on the hardest aspects of hospitalization for patients in the first wave.

“Our lessons from the previous wave point to a difficulty arising from the isolation of patients who feel abandoned,” he said.

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