At lunchtime on March 7, John Wu went to Scarborough Grace Hospital to drop off a container of cantaloupe for his mother. He had brought her food almost every day since she had been admitted more than a week earlier.
Since he wasn’t allowed to see her, he dropped her off at the security desk and was about to leave when his cell phone rang. He was one of the doctors. Her mother’s heart had stopped beating.
“I was shocked,” he said. “I was furious.”
For 11 days, Wu said, he had called the hospital to get permission to visit his mother. But she was told she was in isolation because the long-term care home she was transferred from was experiencing a COVID-19 outbreak. Even after she tested negative twice, he said he still couldn’t see her.
“It will be my life’s regret,” Wu said. “It will always be in my heart.”
Wu’s situation is well known to the Ontario Patient Ombudsman. In a recent annual report, the bureau said it received 3,613 complaints about public hospitals, including 677 related to COVID-19 in 2020 and 2021. Of those, 242 were directly related to visitation issues — more than any another complaint.
CBC News has contacted the Scarborough Health Network for comment on Wu’s allegations, but has not yet received a response.
“Why wasn’t I allowed to see my dying mother?
Wu’s mother, Zhong Ying Zhao, was admitted to the emergency department on February 24 after being found unconscious at the long-term care home where she had been living for just two weeks.
Apart from the first night, Wu said the hospital would not allow her to see her, despite numerous signs that she was already at the end of her life. Wu said she was initially told she might not regain consciousness when admitted to hospital and was told by two doctors to consider palliative care.
Hospital records Wu provided to CBC News show Zhao received a palliative consultation on March 3. Records said she had “worsening kidney and heart function” and doctors were suggesting symptom management instead of treatment because her “prognosis was poor”.
But Wu said no one at the hospital informed her that she was so close to the end.
“Why wasn’t I allowed to see my dying mother? Why didn’t anyone at the hospital ever tell me that my mother’s death was imminent? he said.
“This will haunt me forever.”
However, hospital records show a doctor explained: “Sometimes patients die due to cardiac arrest and the heart just stops beating without any prior warning.”
This will haunt me forever.-John Wu
Wu remembers the last conversation he had with his mother.
A staff member who spoke Mandarin helped connect the two on the phone. She told him that she was very weak, that she couldn’t eat, that she didn’t have the strength to hold the phone. She said she was dying.
“I told him, ‘Hold on. Eat as much as you can. Maybe tomorrow I can see you.’ And I hung up,” he says.
She died of respiratory failure and congestive heart failure the following day.
Ontario’s patient ombudsman says stories like Wu’s have been common in the past two years of the pandemic.
“The nature of these stories is incredibly disturbing,” said Craig Thompson.
“In situations where someone is in poor health…having access to your loved one is a basic expectation that people should have.”
Thompson’s office says visitation issues also topped the list of COVID-19 complaints at long-term care homes in 2020 and 2021
“It’s amazing that we are two years away from a pandemic and you are hearing about a situation where someone cannot access their loved one in a hospital or long-term care home,” Thompson said.
He says the isolation of loved ones also has serious consequences for the mental and physical health of patients.
In the meantime, Wu says he is sharing his story so other families don’t go through the same pain.
“We need to let people know that there is a problem here in our society. There are problems here,” he told CBC News.
“The message to the hospital would be, ‘Be compassionate. Be respectful. [patients] with dignity.'”