Margie Ulman speaking with her family from her hospital bed.
CNN  — 

Alone and dying.

For those with the worst cases of Covid-19, this is the harsh reality. Patients are unable to see or speak with their families; their families are unable to say “I love you” one last time.

That was the situation Harvey Rickles and his family faced when his mother-in-law, 89-year-old Margie Ulman, was admitted to the ICU.

He says Ulman was “fiercely independent” and very much still full of life. She was activity involved in real estate and completed her last sale on March 5. Once in the ICU, however, her condition quickly deteriorated.

Unable to visit her because of the restrictions on visitors, her physician, Dr. Joanne Kuntz, director of palliative care at Emory University Hospital in Atlanta, suggested they set up a Zoom conference call. Dr. Kuntz set up the equipment in the hospital and Ulman’s children, grandchildren and great grandchildren throughout the country were able to come together and visit her at a time she needed it the most.

Margie Ulman with great-grandson Graham Ulman.

“We all really appreciate that we could visit with her and talk to her until almost the very end,” Rickles told CNN.

Dr. Kuntz wrote in a personal essay that it’s moments like this when health care turns into human care.

“One of the most important questions we ask is, ‘If time were short, what would be most important to you? How would you want to spend it?’” she writes. “The answer we hear time and again is this: ‘I want to spend it with my family, my children, my grandchildren.’”   

And the only answer to that right now is through technology.

After only three days in the hospital, Ulman died. Rickles says Dr. Kuntz’s gesture helped give his family an opportunity that a lot of others might not be getting right now, a chance to say goodbye.

“We felt that it provided a lot of relief. It gave us an opportunity to see her and have contact with her and share our thoughts with her,” Rickles said. “It was cathartic.”

Harvey Rickles and family speaking with his mother-in-law, Margie Ulman.

Pivot to giving

Stories like this motivated Sara Rodell.

She received a text message from a friend asking for help finding tablets, laptops, phones or other devices that could be donated to hospitals in order to connect patients to their families. The friend heard about the problem from a nurse.

“The nurse was seeing patients pass away without getting the chance to say goodbye to their loved ones,” Rodell told CNN. “I feel like everything is making you cry these days, but that was just very emotional.”

Rodell, an entrepreneur and founder of the company Loop & Tie, reached out to colleagues in the tech industry to see what they could do. Within a day, they created Covid Tech Connect, a non-profit dedicated to getting devices to hospitals. With the financial sponsorship of The Giving Back Fund, they set up a GoFundMe to accept donations in order to purchase devices and ship out the donated equipment they receive from various tech companies.

So far, they have raised over $165,000 and expect 2,600 new devices to be donated that will go out to about 40 hospitals.

A lot of attention has been brought to the need for ventilators and PPE, but Rodell believes equipment for communicating is just as vital.

“I think there’s a human element here that’s really important to appreciate. I was imagining what it would feel like to be a person that has been alone in a hospital and wanting to talk to my family, and not have the ability to do that,” Rodell said. “I think a lifeline that stands out is how easily we can still call each other and it just feels really scary to imagine not having that asset.”

Hospitals that Rodell is in touch with say they expect to need about 15 devices to make a difference helping patients who don’t have their own devices or who are taken to the hospital without their phones or chargers.

For those who have lost loved ones, and for frontline health care workers who’ve lost patients, the grieving process will take a lot of time.

Rodell hopes that’s where the work of Covid Tech Connect will help.

Rickles says being able to communicate with his mother-in-law provided everyone in his family a little bit of comfort.

“We had some opportunity to have visual and verbal contact with her and I think it definitely helped a lot. I think it helped her too,” Rickles said. “I hope more hospitals are able to adapt, especially during this time. It helps make a bad situation better for sure.”