Nurses wearing protective gear seen inside an isolated ward for COVID-19 patients at Hadassah Ein Kerem Hospital on April 20 2020, in Jerusalem. (Photo: David Vaaknin)

A few times a week, when he can find a couple of spare hours between his work for a high-tech company and raising four daughters, Shuki Rock heads to Hadassah Medical Center in Jerusalem, where he dons full-body protective gear and enters the coronavirus ward.

His tasks range from distributing food and water to just sitting and talking with COVID-19 patients, who are confined to isolation rooms and unable to see family or other visitors. He is only allowed inside because, back in April, he was infected and recovered from the virus, and therefore assumed to have some immunity.

"I just do mainly little things, but I think all accumulated it's a big help," says Rock, who was sick along with his wife, for more than a month with the virus. Although they were not hospitalized they were confined to their house for several weeks. "But that feeling of solitude was still there when we were sick, and any help from someone of the outside is quite powerful in the situation."

Rock is now one of about 20 recovered COVID patients who started volunteering at Hadassah in July through a new joint pilot program with the nonprofit medical organization Yad Avraham, to help current patients with both physical and emotional needs. If successful, the program could expand to other hospitals in the country, which is currently experiencing a record number of infections after nearly stomping out the virus in May.

"The staff is working very hard, so this means they don't have time to really speak with the patients or keep them company one-on-one," says Rely Alon, director of the division of nursing and health professions at Hadassah, which currently has more than 100 patients in its isolated coronavirus ward.

Keeping Company With Isolated Patients

Israel has fewer doctors and nurses per capita than average among countries that belong to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, according to a 2019 report. On Monday, many of the country's nurses launched a one-day strike, causing the government to promise to fund more positions for nurses and doctors in hospitals and clinics. Nurses in COVID19 wards and involved in testing for the virus were not part of the work stoppage.

Due to the general shortage of manpower in the medical field, hospitals and other institutions often rely on volunteers or those carrying out national service obligations to help meet non-medical needs. But the highly contagious nature of COVID makes working or volunteering with these patients difficult, even for those who have been previously infected, Alon says. "There is still a lot we don't know about it and for how long people gain immunity."

Doctors are not certain how long antibodies last in the bodies of recovered patients, and there are reports, including in Israel, of people becoming infected a second time. So volunteers wear protective clothing and also sign a waiver that they won't sue or blame the hospital if they become sick with the virus. The volunteers have also tested positive for antibodies in their blood.

"I am not afraid," says Moshe Tauber, a yeshiva student from Jerusalem who had COVID in April, along with his wife and infant daughter; all three recovered at home. "Because I have had the disease, I can do something that others cannot."

The volunteers and medical staff say their biggest contribution is keeping company with the patients, who are often lonely, anxious and scared. Studies on patients who survived previous related viruses, including SARS and MERS, have found that more than 32% of those studied in multiple countries showed symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder and nearly 15% were depressed even after they recovered from the infections. Experts have warned that the experience of having COVID, including medical isolation, being infected with a disease that has no proven treatments, and other interventions such as intubation, will likely lead to lasting emotional and mental health challenges.

"The very treatments used to battle this deadly disease are triggering life-altering mental health effects," writes Flaum Hall, associate professor of counseling at Xavier University and Scott E. Hall, a professor of clinical mental health counseling at the University of Dayton.

This week, Rock spent his hours listening to a woman tell the story of how she became sick enough to enter the hospital, and how scared she was after seeing reports from all over the world of overwhelmed hospitals and people dying. Another older man lamented how the pandemic has been the first time in his life when he hasn't been able to attend daily prayer services at synagogues, which have largely closed or limited attendance.

"He became so emotional he was crying," Rock says. "People just really need someone to listen to them."

This article was first published by U.S. News on 22 July. Click here to read the original.