'My lifeline': Doctor's pilot program bridges divide between COVID-19 patients, families

"Dr. Moor became almost like my guardian angel ... my gateway of information."

When Kerri Hurley's husband, James, a 50-year-old Boston police officer and father of their two children, was rushed to Beth Israel Deaconess Hospital-Plymouth with COVID-19 last month, his fever spiked.

His oxygen levels plummeted and he couldn't speak to her on the phone.

"I was terrified. I hopped into my car ... I didn't know what else to do but go and sit in the parking lot of the hospital," Hurley told ABC News, overcome with emotion. "I waited and waited for anything."

Finally she got a call from Dr. Ben Moor, an anesthesiologist at the hospital who told her he was going to visit James.

Later Moor called her with an update: James' levels had stabilized.

"[Moor said,] 'If you need anything, I'm here. If you need to talk, I'm here. I'll be checking in on your husband before and after my shift,'" Hurley recalled. "He was so great with me."

"I had no idea he wasn't a COVID doctor!" she said. During "the scariest time in our lives, Dr. Moor was our hero."

Moor launched a pilot program in January at Beth Israel Deaconess Hospital-Plymouth in the hopes of combatting the isolation caused by COVID-19. In the program, hospital workers, who must be at least 10 days past their second vaccine dose, can volunteer outside of their shifts and outside of their paid work to put on PPE and visit with COVID-19 patients to provide comfort, not medical care.

"We're not obviously gonna do as good a job as you might do with your loved one, but we can do something. And I think that's important," Moor told ABC News.

A 'very small window' in COVID-19 history

The idea that he could make a difference for these patients came to Moor in January when, after his second vaccine dose, he stopped by the COVID-19 unit.

"It really impressed on me how lonely these patients were. That's not to say the medical, nursing care they got wasn't excellent," he said, but "the nurses, the doctors on these floors are particularly busy."

Moor said he spoke to the head of the hospital for approval for his program before sending an email blast to colleagues.

His email read: "These volunteers will be a physical presence who can visit with the patient, hold a hand, bring in gifts from families, assist with video and phone calls, and offer comfort. The time commitment may be an a few minutes to an hour or so a day -- whatever you can do -- but daily contact would be a good goal."

"Front-line hospital workers are pretty burned out," Moor said, and although he was worried about asking for more of their time, the response was "overwhelming," with at least 60 people expressing interest.

When Moor stops in to visit patients, he said he likes to ask about the claustrophobia, anxiety and fear they're facing. When discussing their anxiety, many patients teared up.

For families, that anxiety is "almost multiplied," he added, because they're helpless to look after loved ones.

Mieko "Mickey" South, a post-anesthesia care unit nurse at the hospital, wanted to volunteer once she read Moor's email.

One patient South sat with was an older woman who she said was confused and didn't understand why she was still in the hospital. South said Moor recommended that she reach out to the patient's family, so South initiated a Facetime call, which she said brought so much joy to both sides of the iPad screen.

"Knowing they couldn't come inside the hospital, to be that person to make that happen, it's just so heartwarming," South said.

Another patient South visited was a man who said all he wanted "was someone to just sit with him and talk with him. Just to have somebody in the room."

South said she sees the importance of family and friends visiting patients more than ever before.

"It's isolating to be in the hospital to begin with ... you're in a room with a door closed all the time, and the majority of the rooms in our hospital don't have windows on the doors," South said.

Most knocks on the door are from busy doctors and nurses making their rounds.

"It's nice to have somebody come in just to talk to you about your family," South added.

'My guardian angel'

For Hurley, "Dr. Moor became my lifeline of communication to my husband," she said, because his doctors and nurses "were so busy, you can't really bother them that much."

James was put on remdesivir (a drug approved by the Food and Drug Administration for use on hospitalized patients) and a combination of steroids, she said, and then he began to improve.

"Dr. Moor would be texting me, he'd be calling me, [saying] 'I just dropped off a coffee and a donut to your husband and he looks good. And can I bring anything to you?' He was amazing," she said.

James was released from the hospital after five days. Hurley said she and their children stayed isolated for another two weeks due to James' high viral load.

Now the family is reunited, but James is still recovering.

Hurley said she's so grateful that Moor happened to launch the pilot program when her husband was sick -- and she thinks his program "should be in every single hospital."

With so many COVID-19 patients on ventilators, or with oxygen levels too low to speak, "you don't have that communication," she said. And to James, she said, seeing a smiling face in his room "meant the world."

"Dr. Moor became almost like my guardian angel ... my gateway of information," she said. "I owe him such a debt of gratitude. Had I not had him, I don't know what I would've done."