Health Care Workers Honor Those Lost During the Pandemic
A married couple just shy of their 65th wedding anniversary are overcome by the COVID-19 virus and die less than a week apart. Their son, John Gioioso Jr., wants us to remember the wonderful people his parents were in life, and the extraordinary care his family received during his mother and father’s final days.
Gioioso took the time to write an email to Greater Lawrence Family Health Center in which he praised Lawrence General Hospital and its staff, and specifically recognized four doctors who cared for his parents during their stay, beginning last May 8 with John Gioioso Sr.’s admission and continuing through May 9, when his wife, Palmina, was admitted, May 11, when John passed away, and May 17, when Palmina died.
The team didn’t just care for Palmina, 89, and John, 91. They also cared for their family. Julia Cooper, Patrick O’Neil, Rebecca Joseph and Alex Spacht were all residents of Greater Lawrence Family Health Center’s four-year family medicine residency program when they were assigned to staff a COVID-19-positive floor at Lawrence General Hospital. The doctors’ reactions to working under those conditions were mixed at first. They all knew it would be challenging. Spacht described them as recognizing it was a privilege to care for those suffering from this terrible disease, while at the same time confronting fears for their own safety.
“The hospital did a really incredible job working with the limited resources that all hospitals at the time were experiencing,” says O’Neil. Personal protective equipment (PPE) was in short supply during the early days of the pandemic, but O’Neil felt the hospital was still able to prioritize the safety of patients and staff. As the Gioiosos became ill, Massachusetts hospitals were struggling through the state’s initial wave of infections.
John Gioioso Jr. wrote the email, but says the entire family was touched by the personal and attentive care Palmina and John received. On the day after Palmina’s passing, the Gioioso family got a message from Spacht, in which she expressed her condolences. Joseph took the time to personally meet the Gioiosos’ daughter Laura and her husband, Frank, at the entrance of the floor to check their PPE and comfort them. She was the doctor who brought Palmina to her husband so she could comfort him in his final moments. O’Neil spent time answering the toughest questions. He made Palmina comfortable as she passed, doing his best to stand in for her family. “Dr. Cooper would go in and she would hold my mother’s hand,” John Gioioso Jr. recalls. “She would brush her hair. She was us. It was a blessing for us.”
The doctors were humble when presented with this praise. They wouldn’t admit to being extraordinary and insisted they were just trying their best in a difficult time. As Joseph puts it, “Just because [the family members] weren’t able to be at the bedside didn’t mean we wanted to change our standard of care in regards to family communication, so we really made it a focus and part of our routine.”
The doctors will likely be forever changed because of their work during the pandemic. At this early stage of their careers, they were faced with a mysterious disease and changing protocols regarding its treatment. They witnessed the deaths of patients at increasing rates and often found themselves offering end-of-life counseling to families.
O’Neil described the emotional and physiological pain that he and his fellow residents shared. Going through the experience together was helpful.
Says Cooper: “One of the ways that the residents were processing our grief through the pandemic is that the room we were using as our workroom … we chose a wall and we cut out some squares of paper and put out a lot of markers and things, and people would make little memorials of the patients who had died. And so, when Mr. Gioioso died, Rebecca Joseph made one for him, and I made one when Mrs. Gioioso died, and wrote after 64 years of marriage that Mrs. Gioioso joined her husband.”
The impact of the compassion from these four doctors will undoubtedly continue to ripple through the lives of other families. But the doctors will tell you that they couldn’t have done it alone. “I just want to make sure we give the recognition to all the other people that were working on that floor,” Joseph says. “We really couldn’t have done what we did in those months and continue to do without the support of really phenomenal nurses, social workers, and the chaplain, nurses aides who sat with patients while they were dying, and really all the different levels of staff, cafeteria workers; everyone played an integral part of providing compassionate care to patients who had been admitted to the hospital.”
Greater Lawrence Family Health Center