Sarah Johnson spent her entire life taking care of people — the six children she raised, mostly alone, and the hospital patients she served in her 25 years as a nurse. But at 86, she was the one who needed care. She was thin and frail and had COVID-19.
Her son Rodney Lavalais anguished over the fact that she was all by herself; he’d moved in with her four years ago after he saw her struggling to open a jar. But when the ambulance took her to Ochsner West Bank, a hospital in the New Orleans suburbs, he couldn’t come with her.
He couldn’t see how stretched the hospital was in mid-April, as the coronavirus surged through the city and flooded its intensive care unit to capacity. Nor could he speak up for his mother when a doctor asked her questions she couldn’t answer.
When he and his siblings received a call from the hospital only 23 hours after she was admitted, informing them there was nothing more doctors could do, they were devastated. Their mother was breathing on her own, but her kidneys were failing. “They told us we couldn’t see her, and that maybe contributed to our decision to bring her home,” he said. “They said hospice will be there to make sure she’s comfortable.”
In that moment, Ochsner made a decision in stark contrast to those made by other hospitals in COVID-19 hot spots across the country: At a time when relatives were being kept away from their sick loved ones to prevent the spread of a contagious and deadly virus, Ochsner sent infected patients back into communities to die at home, and be cared for by untrained family members without the proper protective equipment.
Under normal conditions, hospice workers make frequent face-to-face visits, especially in a patient’s final days. But during the pandemic, when hospice companies were limiting in-person visits, Johnson’s family was left to spend her last days alone with her, watching her moan, convinced she was in pain.
Hospice work suffers from the same historical undervaluing that plagues all home health labor, which has long been low-paying, often non-unionized,...