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“At risk of dying alone”: Strict hospital no-visitors policies halting some families’ goodbyes

A Colorado mom hospitalized for 21 days died Tuesday without seeing her husband or two children, despite the family’s repeated requests for an exception to a policy barring visitors during the coronavirus crisis

The exterior of the University of Colorado Hospital on the Anschutz Medical Campus in Aurora, photographed on Oct. 18, 2019. The hospital is the flagship of the UCHealth system. (John Ingold, The Colorado Sun)
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Steve Reiter picked up gyros and took his teenage boys to eat dinner earlier this month in a hospital parking lot, where they could look upward to try to spot their mom. 

In her room several stories above, Elizabeth Reiter and her nurse flickered the lights so her family could spot her. When she walked to her window to wave at her boys, they could barely make out her silhouette.

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It was the closest they got to her in 21 days. Elizabeth, who had autoimmune issues and heart problems for years, was at UCHealth University of Colorado Hospital in Aurora for three weeks with severe infections in her lungs and blood. Her family was not allowed to see her because the hospital, like many during the coronavirus pandemic, has enacted a strict no-visitor policy to stop the spread of the virus that has infected more than 22,000 Coloradans. 

No matter how many times Reiter asked to visit Elizabeth, even when he tested negative for the virus and when he told them he had never seen his wife of 19 years so depressed, and even on Mother’s Day, he was denied. Hospital officials would not make an exception. 

Then on Tuesday, Elizabeth went into cardiac arrest and died. 

The last time Reiter saw his wife was April 29 at 4:30 in the morning, as she was carried into an ambulance in front of their house in Falcon. There wasn’t time to wake up their sons, ages 13 and 15, so they could say goodbye.

Hospitals across the country have restricted or banned visitors during the coronavirus outbreak. Policies vary somewhat, but in general, medical centers have not allowed visitors except in rare instances, mainly to say goodbye to a patient who is dying or for a parent to stay with a sick child. Children have been banned from entering, and women having babies are allowed only one visitor. The rules apply for patients who have COVID-19 and those who do not.

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Elizabeth, 40, had lupus and long-term health problems that surfaced during her first pregnancy. A doctor once warned Reiter that Elizabeth likely would not live to see their youngest son, now 13, graduate from high school. In 2014, she spent three weeks in the hospital as her heart weakened and she wasted away to 87 pounds. 

After that scare, doctors gave Elizabeth a Hickman line, a small tube that went into a hole in her chest to pump medication to her heart and lungs. Reiter became a pro at changing the bandage that held the tube in place, following a sterile process with gloved hands. 

When Elizabeth began to feel weak in March, they feared it was coronavirus. She had a fever, cough and a hard time breathing. But the coronavirus test came back negative. 

Elizabeth’s doctor added a second medicine to the oxygen machine she used while she slept. Her doctor gave her antibiotics and another round when those didn’t clear the infection. But Elizabeth grew sicker, and Reiter developed a cough, too. “We were just sitting here thinking we had COVID, that we got a false negative,” he said.  

The Reiter family, Steve and Elizabeth, with sons, Matthew, 15, and Caleb, 13. Elizabeth died Tuesday after fighting infections in her blood and lungs. She was allowed no visitors during her 21 days in the hospital. (Provided by the Reiter family)

Three weeks ago, Elizabeth woke up in the middle of the night vomiting and coughing. Reiter called for an ambulance. He made a quick attempt to wake up his sons, but it didn’t work.

“The last time I saw her was when she was lying down on a gurney in front of our house with the EMTs at 4:30 in the morning,” he said. “The boys were sleeping. I said, ‘Get up and say goodbye to your mother,’ and they fell back to sleep.”

The ambulance brought Elizabeth to UCHealth Memorial Hospital in Colorado Springs, but within a couple of hours she was taken to University at her doctor’s request. At home, Reiter was making plans to stay in a hotel near the hospital in Aurora when Elizabeth called to say she was not allowed any visitors. 

Reiter, who runs a podcasting and media production company, dialed the hospital and reached a nurse on Elizabeth’s floor. He said he was told that “under no circumstances” was he allowed to visit. He asked again the next day, after Elizabeth told him that the mucus in her throat felt thick, like gel and that, “for the first time in her life, she thought she was going to die,” he said. 

Two weeks ago, when Elizabeth had been in the hospital for about one week, UCHealth told The Colorado Sun when asked about her case that hospital officials could not comment about a patient. “We do have key exceptions to the visitor policy including anyone in an actual end-of-life situation,” said Dan Weaver, vice president of communications at UCHealth. “Our staff and providers have been educated on the exceptions and we can work with family members to ensure they can visit a loved one in an end-of-life situation.”

Weaver added that nurses, chaplains and others were helping patients connect with family through phone calls and video chats.

When contacted Wednesday, the day after Elizabeth died, the hospital spokesman again said he could not discuss a patient because of privacy laws. University Hospital, which has about 100 patients with confirmed or suspected cases of COVID-19, has maintained a strict no-visitor policy, he said. Eleven other hospitals in the UCHealth system, however, are now allowing patients to have one visitor per day.

“Our visitation restrictions are in place to protect our patients, visitors, and employees,” Weaver said. “Our high-risk, immunocompromised patients who are negative for COVID-19 infections are the ones who most need to be protected from the potential germs that visitors can bring with them.”

Elizabeth, who tested negative for coronavirus a second time while in the hospital, sent an email to The Colorado Sun earlier this month, just before she was transferred to the intensive-care unit at University. She said she should have gone to the hospital sooner but had avoided it because of the pandemic and because she knew she would likely not get to see her husband and sons. 

Mostly, she worried about her family. 

“I still have a heaviness knowing that my family is hurting and I’m unable to comfort them,” she wrote. “I do pray every day for the medical directors who have to make these decisions. I don’t believe they have tin hearts; they are truly trying to protect everyone. But that said, I believe there has to be a way to provide for the needs of the patients and their families and still keep everyone safe.”

Elizabeth said she was thinking about patients in hospitals across the world who were unable to see their families. 

“I feel they’re not getting the chance to choose hope — and in many cases aren’t given understandable reasons why they can’t see their families in a reasonable, safe manner,” she wrote. “Sometimes, unfortunately, they aren’t given any reasons at all, other than ‘it’s policy.’”

The entrance to the University of Colorado Hospital on the Anschutz Medical Campus in Aurora. Elizabeth Reiter was at the hospital for 21 days and died on Tuesday of cardiac arrest. (John Ingold, The Colorado Sun)

One of the roughest days for the family in the last three weeks was Mother’s Day. “I tried my damndest to try to get her to cheer up,” Reiter said. “I could never get her to smile.” He texted one of her doctors two days later, asking again for permission to visit her. The answer was still no. 

“No one should be isolated in the hospital without a loved one,” Reiter said. “No one should be at risk of dying alone.”

Elizabeth’s condition began to improve and she was moved out of the ICU last Friday. Doctors were talking about sending her home by the end of this week, and Reiter was preparing to set up the house with an air-filtration system and a special exercise bike to help his wife rebuild her strength. 

During the last conversation they had, on Tuesday, Elizabeth was in good spirits, hopeful that she might get to come home soon. She talked about sleeping in her own bed and hugging her sons. 

Reiter’s phone rang 40 minutes after they hung up. 

He assumed it was the hospital calling to tell him when he could pick up his wife. Instead, the doctor told him Elizabeth had gone into cardiac arrest and Reiter had better hurry to the hospital. 

The drive from Falcon is about an hour and half, up Interstate 25. The first time Reiter called the hospital to check on Elizabeth, he was told they were still trying to resuscitate her. The next time he called, she was gone. 

He’s not sure how he managed to keep driving.

The day after his wife died, Reiter was overwhelmed. His words were interrupted by heavy sighs. His sons, he said, are in “absolute shock.” 

“They are really hurt that they couldn’t see their mother at any point during the last three weeks,” he said.

Steve and Elizabeth met in 2000, and for their first date, went to the Denver Diner and to a Sunny Day Real Estate concert. They got married one year later. She loved baseball and complained that there was none to watch from her hospital bed this spring. She loved music, so much that she had it on all the time, in every room she was in — Jack Johnson, country, Christian. 

Reiter recalled that people would often comment that they thought his small wife was frail until they got to know her inner strength. 

“She was a loving human being and not just to me and the boys and to her family and friends,” he said. “She was just kind-hearted. Everyone called her sweet.”

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