When Stephen Hefler was admitted to a hospital for COVID-19 symptoms in late March, his kidneys were on the brink of failure. From his bed in the ICU, the 77-year-old retired physician initially remained in contact with his family. “We were able to text and speak a little bit in the first 48 hours,” says his son, Jon.
Then Hefler stopped responding. His phone was dead. By the time his family received an update from the hospital, he was on a ventilator. “There’s really nothing we can do for your father, he’s maxed out on every lifesaving machine and drug that we have,” Hefler’s doctors told Jon. “It’s time to say goodbye.”
On March 30, 2020, Hefler’s birthday, one of his nurses went home to retrieve a phone charger so Hefler’s family could speak to him via FaceTime, even while he remained unconscious.
“We could see him, literally tubes coming out of his nose, his throat,” says Jon. “The nurse told us that he would hear our voices and his heart rate would get a little bit better, or whatever other vital signs would stabilize, even briefly. . . . We knew there had to be something with that level of connection.”
Unexpectedly, Hefler made it through the night, then the week. On April 23, 2020, he was discharged from the ICU. He is expected to make a full recovery.
“He has literally beaten all of the odds,” Jon says. “The doctors and nurses use the word ‘miracle’ with us.”
But in embracing his dad’s improved condition, Jon recognizes that other victims of the coronavirus will not be as lucky. Across the country, healthcare workers are stretched thin just trying to keep patients alive and can’t be relied upon to track down phone chargers, which hospitals do not typically keep in stock.
“We realized this is a much-needed, really cheap piece of technology that can really make a difference for people,” Jon says. He and his wife, Maren, launched a GoFundMe page to buy chargers for hospitals, with the goal of raising at most a few thousand dollars. The fundraiser has already brought in more than $37,000.
The Heflers have partnered with Megan Tress, a nurse practitioner based in Chicago, who is working with a team of nursing students to identify hospitals in need of donated chargers. (Hospitals can also request donations through this Google form.)
“It’s not a new problem,” Tress says. “I’ve seen it happen with my own patients in the [Emergency Room] or in the ICU. . . . It’s a huge cripple for a person not to have a charged phone.” The coronavirus is making that problem worse, as patients are isolated under quarantine and healthcare workers may be reluctant to share their own devices.
Tress estimates that roughly 10,000 chargers have already been given away through her and the Heflers’ efforts, but as a result the money from the GoFundMe has been expended. She is seeking a manufacturer who can donate chargers in bulk, in addition to continued contributions on the GoFundMe page.
The chargers are “not just reducing the stress level of the patients, but also of the people who are caring for them, which is incredibly high right now,” Tress says.
Her ultimate vision is supplying every hospital room with a charger, so patients—especially the most vulnerable—are never left to suffer alone. “Our role is 50% empathy and 50% clinical, if not even higher,” she says. “That’s our calling. That’s why we do the job that we do.”