'It feels like a bad nightmare': Daughter of first Calgary nursing home COVID-19 victim speaks out

Gayle Neal's mother was the first person to die of COVID-19 at the McKenzie Towne nursing home, the site of the largest long-term care outbreak in Alberta. There have been eight deaths, and 72 residents and staff have tested positive.

Anna Neal, 85, died at McKenzie Towne Continuing Care Centre 2½ days after developing breathing troubles

Gayle Neal says her mother, Anna, was having difficulty breathing for more than two days before she died. (Submitted by Gayle Neal)

The distressed calls started on the evening of Friday, March 20.

Gayle Neal's 85-year-old mother, Anna Neal, was in her suite at the McKenzie Towne Continuing Care Centre, struggling to breathe.

Anna, who had recently moved into the long-term care home after breaking her hip, was frantic.

"She was calling out for help. There was no response from the staff, which was really scary for both of us," said Neal.

'She couldn't breathe and no one was there'

With visitors to the facility restricted, Gayle kept her mom on the line and got her daughter to call the front desk to track down help.

Staff eventually went to Anna's room and, according to Gayle, she settled down after about 30 minutes.

The next morning, five more calls. All from her mother in distress.

"All the time, she was calling me because she couldn't breathe and no one was there," recalled Neal. "In my mind, it was very severe."

Anna Neal, pictured here with her granddaughter in March, was the first person to die of COVID-19 at the McKenzie Towne Continuing Care Centre. (Submitted by Neal family)

'We weren't able to see her'

Gayle was on and off the phone that weekend trying to ensure her mother was getting the care she needed. 

She says staff told her while they were putting Anna on oxygen that there was no need to be concerned.

"They downplayed it. To be told there's no real concern — well, we believed them," she said.

"We weren't able to see her, we weren't able to be there for her."

On Sunday, a nurse left a voicemail to say they started Anna on antibiotics and had taken a swab but they didn't say what she was being tested for.

Again, Gayle says they reassured her there were no major concerns.

"Then 16 hours later, I got a call that she had passed away."

7 more deaths as outbreak grows

Anna Neal was the first resident of the McKenzie Towne Continuing Care Centre to fall victim to the virus.

As of Friday, seven more residents have died.

The outbreak at the southeast Calgary facility accounts for the majority of COVID-19 cases in Alberta's long-term care system.

More than a third of the facility's residents had tested positive by Friday. According to Alberta Health, 51 residents and 21 workers are confirmed with COVID-19.

"It feels like a bad nightmare," said Neal, who hasn't been able to bury her mother because she and other family members are in self-isolation after going into the centre to view Anna's body.

Anna Neal, pictured here with her family in December 2018, moved into the McKenzie Towne nursing home about two months before her death. (Submitted by Neal family)

'She was alone'

And there are still so many questions.

"How could they not have acted quicker with everything that is going on in the world," said Gayle.

"What kills me most is that she was alone and she went through this for two days."

Gayle is also raising concerns about how the McKenzie Towne facility handled infection control.

"Their so-called isolation of my mom was in her shared suite, and they had her roommate in there with her in the bed right next to her with the curtain open at the head of the beds between them." 

According to Gayle, the family went to view Anna's body hours after her death and found her in a urine soaked bed, still beside her roommate with the curtain open.

"I don't' think that's very good isolation procedures," she said.

As of Thursday, four people living in the McKenzie Towne Continuing Care Centre had died of COVID-19. It is the site of Alberta's largest long-term care outbreak, with 65 residents and staff testing positive. (Google Maps)

Alberta's top doctor concerned

On Thursday, the province's chief medical officer of health, Dr. Deena Hinshaw, acknowledged there have been problems within the facility.

"Clearly, with [these] cases in one site, that is a significant concern," said Hinshaw, who has been in contact with health officials in Calgary to discuss the situation inside the McKenzie Town nursing home.

"It's my understanding that it would have been better to have had earlier notification of those cases so that action could have been taken when there were one or two cases. I will say going forward I know my colleagues at the local level are doing everything they can to work with that facility."

And the situation inside the facility is likely to get worse, according to Hinshaw, who says given the incubation period that she expects more cases will be identified there in the days to come.

Revera responds   

After Anna Neal's death, Revera — the company that runs the Mckenzie Towne facility — issued a public statement saying she came down with symptoms and was tested for COVID-19 on March 22, the day before she died.

However, Gayle refutes that version of events, saying her mom became sick on Friday, March 20, and staff never mentioned the coronavirus.

Revera declined CBC's requests for an interview and refused to answer specific questions about Neal's death, citing patient confidentiality.

In a statement, Dr. Rhonda Collins, Revera's chief medical officer, said: "We extend our deepest sympathies to the family and friends of the residents of Mackenzie Towne Continuing Care Centre who passed away with COVID-19."

'No one was there for her'

"We cannot comment on the details of our residents' care out of respect for their privacy," Collins said in the statement.

"We take the health and safety of all our residents seriously. At the present time, all our energy and resources are focused forward on containing this outbreak to protect our residents and staff. We continue to work closely with Alberta Health Services to follow their directives in managing the outbreak and we are grateful for the clinical resources and expertise that AHS is providing to us in this unprecedented pandemic."

Gayle Neal says what brings her peace now is knowing that her mother is no longer suffering. She says she hopes Anna's story will push long-term care facilities to improve their outbreak care standards and ensure proper staffing levels and training are in place.

But, as a grieving daughter, she is still struggling with the shock of her mother's death and news the virus continues to circulate inside the care home and is still claiming lives.

"You're counting on the place where you put your loved one to care for them and to be there for them, and no one was there for her."


Jennifer Lee


Jennifer Lee is a CBC News reporter based in Calgary. She worked at CBC Toronto, Saskatoon and Regina, before landing in Calgary in 2002. If you have a health or human interest story to share, let her know.


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