She volunteered for the job that nobody wanted.
When clinical psychologist Dr. Jamieson Webster saw an opening for a volunteer social worker at Mount Sinai Hospital in Brooklyn through the NYC Medical Reserve Corps, it was clear the duties were grim.
The hospital needed someone who could speak with families and connect them to their ailing loved ones in the last moments of their life amid the coronavirus pandemic.
But no one else had applied — so she did.
“I thought no one will do this if I don’t do it, so what do I do?” Webster, 40, told The Post.
“I can’t imagine in this situation if there’s an actual need not filling it,” added the Brooklynite, who’d been checking the MRC’s website everyday for openings. “I would risk my life because it feels like a call of duty.”
For the last month, Webster has been volunteering at the hospital three days a week, all while managing her own patients from her private practice and teaching remotely for Princeton University and The New School.
“I think the hospital just was really overwhelmed… nurses can’t sit down and have a 15 minute conversation with [families]. They do not have the time… No hospital thought they were gonna have to deal with this many people dying,” Webster said.
“Everyone’s having a hard time because they feel so out of control. You know, [families] can’t be there. They don’t know what’s going on. They can only get updated so much. With this virus in particular, things change drastically from one moment to the next.”
From the moment she gets to the hospital, she doesn’t “stop moving” as she goes from floor to floor with an iPad, and sometimes her personal cell phone, calling patients’ loved ones to tell them bad news.
“I try to let them stay on as long as I can, but you’re also wary that there’s a lot of people that you have to get to,” Webster said.
“The point in time in which I’m the most helpful is at the critical moments… because someone’s going to be intubated [and] it would be good for the family to speak to them” before they’re in a medically-induced coma, the doctor explained.
“And then you’ll also have the most painful calls, which are the calls from palliative care when you’re bringing them to see and speak to their person for the last time.”
The calls are always emotional, but not always the same.
“I’ve seen all kinds of things. I’ve seen people play music, I’ve seen people pray. I’ve seen people bring 10 people on a Zoom to pray all together,” Webster recalled.
Webster recounted a call she made for a son in Kazakhstan who wanted to say goodbye to his father before he was intubated, knowing patients on ventilators have a high mortality rate.
“The father passed like an hour later so it just sort of feels like this technological miracle that he was able to see his father from that far away,” Webster said.
She described another call with the daughter of that man’s roommate, a “beloved” patient who everyone adored.
“He was just like up and about and talking and he crashed and ended up on a ventilator very quickly,” said Webster, who immediately got the man’s daughter on the line.
“The daughter was furious. It’s a reasonable reaction. But she wanted to know why this happened because he was fine. [She said] ‘I just feel like everyone has given up on my father. No one’s giving me information.’ I think they probably weren’t giving her information because it was so bad,” Webster went on.
“I said to her ‘nobody in this hospital is giving up on your father, everyone here loves your father… [the nurse] got on the call and she just started like weeping, like weeping, saying ‘I love him, I can’t stand to see him like this, it really like hurts me, I have been with him every single day.’”
The man was brought to the ICU and ended up passing away Thursday morning.
“It’s just those moments in which you’re trying to do your best for a family in a situation that’s so dire and we’re trying to like humanly connect over the iPad,” Webster said.
The doctor said she’s “trained” to handle other people’s suffering and has dealt with “grief and anxiety” in her work as a psychologist, “but never in such extreme and dire circumstances.”
“There’s something in the hospital that feels particularly hopeless, and I think that’s the hardest thing to shoulder and to see the staff there shouldering,” she said.
She described the “strange intimacy” of holding up her iPhone to a patient’s face while she watches them see their loved one. A lot of the time, patients are already intubated, so she just encourages the family to speak to them freely, even though no one knows for sure if they can hear.
“The minute the family member starts speaking to the person who’s intubated and in a medically induced coma, I see their pulse rate go up, I even see them try to move their hands,” Webster said.
“I’ve seen someone who’s like, struggling on an oxygen mask, not intubated and the loved one on the little iPad comes in, and I watch their breathing go from a 70 to a 90, like the machine is flashing red and then I watch it go to green,” she continued.
“You can’t underestimate how important this is.”
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