British Columbia

Daughter describes mother's final days at B.C. care home hit by COVID-19 outbreak

Isabelle Mikhail, 94, died on March 18, 2020 at the Lynn Valley Care Centre in North Vancouver. She was the eighth person to die at the home after testing positive for COVID-19. Her daughter, May Mikhail, helped care for her in her final days as staff themselves grew ill.

Isabelle Mikhail died March 18 at Lynn Valley Care Centre in North Vancouver

Isabelle Mikhail died at the Lynn Valley Care Centre in North Vancouver B.C. on March 18, 2020 after contracting coronavirus. (May Mikhail)

May Mikhail was with her 94-year-old mother until the end, as her health deteriorated at the Lynn Valley Care Centre in North Vancouver, where Canada's first COVID-19 death was recorded on March 8.

Her mother, Isabelle Mikhail, became the eighth person to die of COVID-19 at the B.C. long-term care home. 

"It was difficult," May Mikhail said about about her mother's final days. "We were trying to keep her hydrated and comfortable. It was clear to me fairly soon into this that she wasn't doing well." 

Isabelle Mikhail died March 18. All told, 11 residents have died and more than 40 additional people have tested positive for the virus, along with 21 staff members.

Mikhail commended employees who care for residents at Lynn Valley, but said the deadly outbreak forced her and others to quickly step in when residents and staff fell ill. Eventually, she and her partner pitched in themselves, providing meals, cleaning up and even taking care of residents.

Not a good time to visit

May Mikhail, who lives eight blocks from the nursing home, says the crisis began March 6 when she went to to visit her mother, who had dementia. She was greeted with signs on the front door warning of suspected coronavirus cases.

Staff told her it wasn't a good time to visit.

May Mikhail, one of Isabelle Mikhail's two daughters, is thankful for the care her mother received at the Lynn Valley Care Centre. (Dillon Hodgin/CBC)

She was invited instead to attend an emergency meeting the next day. There, along with dozens of other family members, she learned residents and staff members had contracted the virus. "And I was reassured that things would be OK," she said.

But they weren't.

She next visited the centre on March 8 around dinner time. "We walked into real mayhem," she said. 

Watch | May Mikhail describe the conditions she encountered at the Lynn Valley Care Centre:

May Mikhail describes the moment when she knew she would have to help care for her sick mother at the Lynn Valley Care Centre in North Vancouver. 0:41

Mikhail said that there were just a few staff members working, either because they were already ill, or afraid to come to the nursing home.

She said her mother, who can't feed herself, had not eaten her lunch because no one was there to help her. Isabelle Mikhail was in a wheelchair and needed help to dress herself and go to the bathroom.

Her daughter said she was wet with urine and was shivering and cold. May Mikhail and her partner realized they would have to step in and provide their own care for her mother.

On March 8, Isabelle Mikhail was tested for the novel coronavirus, which causes COVID-19. Two days later, her results came back positive.

Mikhail and her partner spent the next 10 days going back and forth from the nursing home, even as restrictions were put in place there to reduce the number of visitors.

They helped where they could, and not just with Isabelle. They distributed meals, cleaned tables and helped residents stay hydrated all while wearing masks and frequently washing their hands.

They banded together with other families to support one another, along the staff that was still there.

Mikhail says she doesn't blame the centre for the outbreak and its aftermath.

"I want to acknowledge those that did come in and did work double shifts, you know, four or five in a row. [They're] amazing people in there that work tirelessly day in and day out through this. And they're still looking after people."

'Strong person'

Mikhail says her mother, who lived at the home for five-and-a-half years, had nearly died a few times, but she had always pulled through.

"My mom was a very strong person," she said.

This time, though, with the positive coronavirus result, she knew her mother was going to die.

"Though I didn't want my mom's life to end this way, through COVID, I knew this is where we were heading."

A photograph, displayed in May Mikhail's home. It shows her mother, Isabelle Mikhail, seated in wheelchair, surrounded by family members at Christmas 2017. (May Mikhail)

Due to travel restrictions, May Mikhail's twin sister, who lives in Texas, couldn't get to B.C. to see her mother one last time, but did connect with a video call. One of May Mikhail's sons, who lives in Vancouver, came to say good-bye, but first put on personal protective equipment to avoid infection.

About three days after Isabelle's death, May Mikhail and her partner began coughing and having body aches. Both tested negative and are now at home isolating.

As they mourn Isabelle's death, her family is focusing on her life, which they say was filled with adventure.

Isabelle Mikhail was born and raised in Egypt, but moved to Ireland with her two infant daughters and husband, where he was studying at the time.

The family eventually moved to Canada and settled in Lethbridge, Alta. In her late 70s, she and her husband divorced and she started a new life in North Vancouver.

Her daughter says she loved to cook and bring people together over food.

"She did really well," said Mikhail. "She settled down and kind of made a new life here."

Isabelle Mikhail, in this undated photo, was born and raised in Egypt. She eventually settled in Lethbridge, Alta., where she raised two daughters with her husband. In her late 70s, she moved to North Vancouver. (May Mikhail)

If you have a COVID-19-related story we should pursue that affects British Columbians, please email us at impact@cbc.ca.

With files from David Common and Melissa Mancini