Coronavirus: ‘Phone apps helped me spend time with my dying mum’

Kathleen and Andrew Webb

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Andrew Webb

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“The last time I saw my mom in real life was at this meal, six days before she had a heart attack on her 50th wedding anniversary.”

“A few hours before my mom died, I phoned and heard her say the names of her loved ones and neighbors. I calmed her down and talked to her while she was falling asleep. I don’t think she ever woke up again.”

BBC producer Andrew Webb was unable to visit his mother in the hospital in the past few days before his death.

Instead, she used technology to spend time with her practically.

Similar stories are spreading around the world as restrictions on coronavirus prevent families from visiting desperate sick patients in the past few days and hours.

Here Andrew tells what happened to his mother, Kathleen Webb, and how he managed to stay in touch with her to the end, despite being physically distant.

There is also a complete guide on how to use similar technology at the end of the article.

My mother had a heart attack the day we were to celebrate our parents’ 50th wedding anniversary.

But we had already canceled the family meal we were supposed to have.

My brother Laurence and I had discussed the threat of the coronavirus and almost two weeks before the UK government introduced social restrictions, we decided to protect mom and dad by stopping the celebration.

If it happened, we would all meet near their home in south-west England in mid-March – the weekend before the UK celebrated Mother’s Day.

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Andrew Webb

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“My mom used FaceTime on an iPhone to talk to my daughter thousands of miles away in the US state of Virginia until she was too sick to answer a phone.”

In November 2019, my mother underwent a life-saving emergency surgery after the bowel ruptured. The problem surfaced days before their anniversary was celebrated. My father took her to the hospital.

In the weeks that followed, he was unable to retain food, weakened and eventually died after the rupture of the upper intestine.

Doctors believed that surgery would kill her and, if not, would leave her with a poor quality of life. There was little they could do.

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Webb / Skype family

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The Webb family used conference call apps to visit Kathleen Webb practically while she was dying in the hospital during the coronavirus block

Although UK restrictions were not yet in place, coronavirus was already catching on and our family was faced with a very difficult dilemma: how could we visit a frail and sick relative in the hospital when we could pose a risk to them, and for other patients and staff?

And then there was the risk for us. My brother’s family has underlying health conditions, so he decided he couldn’t compromise their safety by visiting a hospital.

My father, Bernie – 75 years old – visited my mom’s hospital wearing masks and decorative gloves that I had sent him.

I started preparing him for the reality that not only was it a potential risk for everyone when he went there, but that laws that would prevent hospital visits would likely be passed.

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Kathleen and Bernie Webb

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“My parents got married in 1970 and I was born later that year”

We were using WhatsApp on smartphones to talk to my mom, with my dad answering from his bed, then he lifted his cell phone to show us.

This allowed many of us to make video conferences between the hospital ward and family in both London and Hong Kong.

But once the coronavirus blockade started, my father had to stop visiting in person.

My mother’s poor health meant she was unable to answer a phone without help, so we had to call the hospital and ask the nurses to answer the phone that my father had left her.

Then suddenly, my mother was moved to solitary confinement with suspected coronavirus. The brave nurses wore gloves, masks and clothes to enter her room.

I organized video calls to coincide with the nurses who came in: they were always happy to help me, knowing that because of the blockage, the phone was my mother’s only lifeblood for the outside world.

But then the phone stopped working.

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Andrew Webb

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“Mom had traveled to the United States to visit my daughter, but when she became fragile, video calls were the only way they could keep in touch”

It was broken – and since we had to have a phone other than my mom anyway, we decided to experiment with a number of apps.

My brother and father found out that Skype has an auto-reply feature.

We also installed an app called AirDroid which allowed us to view the new phone’s screen remotely and use it.

My brother sterilized the phone during his veterinary surgery and drove to the hospital.

He gave the phone to a nurse, placing it in front of the hospital and waiting for it to arrive and pick it up while it was more than 2 meters away.

My mom lived a few more days, getting weaker and weaker.

The nurses put the phone down, so we could call on Skype and see when it answered automatically.

I ordered a telephone tripod online, but it only arrived in time for his funeral.

Saying goodbye

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Andrew Webb / Skype

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“During my last video call with my mom I talked to her until she fell asleep, maybe for the last time”

Through the Skype video, my mom greeted me, my brother and his grandchildren, including my six year old daughter who lives in the US state of Virginia.

Without modern phone apps, this would have been impossible.

So, in a twist of fate, the coronavirus had forced us to find a way of communicating that would allow his closest family to unite at a distance, and brought us together more at the crucial moment.

My father greeted his 50-year-old wife during a phone call, even though he was only 30 km (19 miles) away.

The nursing staff was fantastic, checking on my mother repeatedly. But on two occasions I called and heard my mother asking for pain relief, alone in her coronavirus isolation room.

I phoned the care station and my mom was given painkillers moments before what could have happened without the phone next to her bed.

A few hours before she died, I connected to the phone at 2:00 am and heard her calling the names of her loved ones and neighbors.

I calmed her for 15 minutes and talked to her until she fell asleep. I don’t think she ever woke up.

Funeral video

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Webb / Zoom family

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“Friends all over the world and I saw the funeral service through Zoom”

My father and my brother’s family attended a 10-minute cremation service a couple of weeks later.

Under UK law, up to 10 people can attend a funeral, but we decided it would have been safer if only a few people had gone. And so apart from two neighbors, no other mourners – myself included – were present.

We were still worried about the risk of infection, so my brother’s family wore masks.

There were no video facilities at the crematorium, so my brother and nephew used Zoom on their phones to share the service with me and my friends. I recorded it for people who have not been able to join us in watching the day.

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Webb / Zoom family

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“I recorded the funeral from Zoom’s HD video recording system and edited a video that my mom’s friends could watch”

The diocese of the Church would not allow my mom’s vicar to perform the service because she is over 70 years old and thought she was more vulnerable in Covid-19.

A younger vicar, whom we had never met before, took up the service.

Video tribute

Now we have a service registration that, if it wasn’t for the coronavirus, we never would have had.

As soon as the funeral was over, I edited the video and used the photographs to create a monument to my mom.

I deliberately recorded several shots during the funeral in order to capture all those who attended online, as well as both crematorium feeds.

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“The family used chat apps to visit my mother practically in the hospital and, after her death, we used two phones in the crematorium to connect around 20 mourners around the world via the Zoom conference app.”

This was the first time that I really suffered from the loss of my mom.

I had been worried that for three weeks, I hadn’t been really angry, and I feared I might collapse later.

However, editing family photos and listening to the music I used, composed and performed by my granddaughter, Jude Pegler Webb, for her university course, was a very tearful experience.

It was the technology that helped me start the mourning process.

My overwhelming memory of this period is the generosity, strength and kindness of others.

I just hope a little bit of what I’ve learned about how using technology in such difficult circumstances can help people in a similar situation.

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Kathleen and Bernie Webb

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Kathleen Webb died on March 31, 2020, at the age of 75

How we did it: virtual hospital visits

1. We downloaded Skype because it allows multiple people to make video calls together through the main operating systems. We used Android phones, Apple iPhones, Macbook Pro computers and Windows 10 computers.

Apple’s FaceTime video calling app can only be used if all Apple products are used, which was not the case. However, Google’s equivalent – Hangouts – works on Apple and Android devices.

2. On the Google Android phone that would have been delivered to my mom, we entered the Skype app settings and activated the option to automatically answer the device when called:

a. Select “Chat” at the bottom left of the screen, then select your profile picture in the top center (this will be a head and shoulders icon if you haven’t uploaded a profile picture).

b. Select “Settings” at the bottom of the screen.

c. Select “Call”, which opens the “Call settings” menu:

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Skype’s “Call settings” menu, to allow a phone to automatically answer with video and audio enabled

d. Select “Automatically answer incoming calls”. Also select “Start my video automatically” to allow the hospital phone to show you at home what its front-facing camera is pointing at.

is. Another option appears at the bottom of the screen: “Allow only Skype calls from contacts to ring on this device.” If you select this option, you can easily find someone who wants to join the call, but they are blocked. Therefore, we have left this option disabled.

Although this meant that strangers could connect, they should have known or guessed my mother’s Skype ID. I had only set it up a few days earlier and had only given it to my family, so an unwanted call was extremely unlikely.

If the patient previously used the Skype account often, for example for work, it would be much safer to create and access a new account on the phone he would have. This would ensure that only family and close friends can call the Skype account.

Other apps, such as Zoom and Microsoft Teams, have auto-reply features, as well as Apple devices by changing the Accessibility settings.

Automatic backups

We turned off automatic updates on the phone: the last thing we wanted was to restart the phone and request to re-enter the account passwords.

Instructions for disabling automatic updates on Android devices

Instructions for disabling automatic updates on Apple mobile devices

Backup chat app

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Facebook Messenger Rooms allows up to 50 people to chat in a video conference

We have installed several other video calling apps in case of a Skype error.

Video call apps include WhatsApp, Google Hangouts, Zoom, Microsoft Teams, Facebook Messenger and Line for Android, Apple and Microsoft Windows devices.

However, the automatic answering feature available with Skype video conferencing was the reason we chose it, and it was also easy for my dad to use it alone at home. Some other very detailed and professional systems require access to a website to adjust this feature.

Facebook has just announced that it will support up to 50 people chatting in its new Messenger rooms. This could prove to be a rival of Zoom for recreational purposes, at a time when socialization is taking place via chat apps, rather than in person.

Modern Apple devices with iOS 12.1.4 or iPadOS also support conference calls with FaceTime. You have to tap the screen, then swipe up the menu under the home menu, so it’s not obvious how to do it like on Skype. And remember that FaceTime is only available for Apple devices.

Phone control: AirDroid

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“AirDroid allowed us to remotely control the Android phone in my mom’s isolation room”

We installed the AirDroid app on an Android phone and computer, to view what the phone screen was showing and manage it remotely.

AirDroid has versions for Android, Windows, Apple iOS and Apple Mac OS X. However, it can only control Android devices and is a file sharing system for Apple devices.

ApowerMirror is an alternative app to control an Android device from a Windows or Mac PC, and there are others with some similar functionality.

We chose AirDroid to give us an option to answer calls or change settings.

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Riley Webb / AirDroid

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“My nephew, Riley, donated his phone to allow us to check it in the hospital via the AirDroid app for Android phones”

It is clearly a security risk if installed without anyone’s knowledge. But it seemed ideal for checking a phone in these circumstances, as a backup, in case Skype asked to re-enter a password, for example.

There have also been reports of security breaches. AirDroid has stated that it is safe.

A problem arose when the phone turned off after being disconnected from a charger and we were unable to reconnect to AirDroid, although it should have been possible and worked in our tests.

If it worked in the hospital, we could have known if the phone had been connected to a charger after being turned on again.

For Apple devices, the pre-installed Find My iPhone app provides battery information.

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Find My iPhone shows the battery life of a phone and if it is charging

Tripod and charging cable

I ordered tripods with extendable legs that could stand on the floor and reach the height of the head or be folded to stand on a bedside table.

I also ordered several 3m charging cables by mail, addressed to the department. Short cables proved difficult in these circumstances and were the main reason the phone turned off, after which AirDroid failed.

Both orders came after my mother died, so I asked the hospital to hold the cables and the tripods were used at the funeral.

Further research by Michael P Mahoney.

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