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COVID-19 Bereavement Unit Built at Sheba for Families to Say Their Final Goodbyes

bereavement unit at Sheba Medical Center
The new isolated bereavement unit enables family members to express farewell to their loved ones and experience an essential part of the mourning process.

Tens of thousands of people worldwide have died as a result of coronavirus COVID-19, and in most cases, families were unable to visit and say goodbye, even after death. At Sheba’s Bereavement Unit, families can see the deceased safely through a large glass window. This design eliminates the risk of infection from the body, which may still carry the virus.

Most people dying from coronavirus are hospitalized in the ICU, which is extremely isolated. Even the medical staff has very limited access, and family members are not permitted to say goodbye in the manner that they wish. Given that many patients had already spent days or weeks isolated in the hospital before their passing, the opportunity to see loved ones for the last time is particularly important. This is a vital human need that Sheba has found a way to satisfy.

“In Judaism and mankind, saying farewell and goodbye [during] mourning is very traditional,” Yoel Hareven, Chief of Staff at Sheba Medical Center, said during an interview with Newsweek.

“Some [of the family] just want to see the process, some of them want to pray, some of them want to say parting words,” Hareven said. “So it became a very imminent need to make this available to the public. And because we are dealing with a very infectious and contagious disease, we need to [take] all the precautions that we can in order to protect those who are living. So we created the bereavement area in a very protective way while still enabling the families to say farewell and even to see the body.”

During the family’s final visit, the medical staff compassionately provides as much privacy as possible, before the body is moved to a morgue. The novel coronavirus is thought to remain on surfaces for several hours or possibly days, so the body is sealed within two nylon bags in preparation for transfer.

“Some families just want to see the body. They cannot kiss, they cannot touch because it’s [through] glass. Some of them kiss the glass, because this is the next closest area to the body,” he said. “It’s a very special and private moment,” he said. “But if you see the circle of life as a complete circle, in a way, I think it’s our responsibility to enable them to say goodbye.”

The Bereavement Unit is located in a former parking garage at Sheba, which was transformed into a specialized COVID-19 intensive care unit with 90 beds with ventilators. The isolated ward was where Israel’s first coronavirus patients, the people who had been quarantined on the Diamond Princess cruise ship, were treated.

Sheba, ranked by Newsweek as one of the top 10 hospitals worldwide, is relatively well prepared for the coronavirus crisis. The ICU capacity was boosted and advanced telemedicine technologies are used to provide remote treatment for patients, protecting the medical team.

“Right now, we are in the process of converting another underground parking area into 180 ICU spots. We are assessing and processing every day what is good and what we need to improve. We prepared and trained our staff on time. So right now, I think we are ready,” said Hareven. “This is the second week that we are expecting the wave to come. It hasn’t come yet. So the amplitude is staying very similar in the last few days, which for us is good news.”

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