'I still haven't grieved': Families want apology for loved ones exposed to COVID-19 in hospital who died
Bioethicist says health-care system administrators have obligation to review deaths in detail with families
Lloyd Hodgins was a jokester with a good heart.
Hodgins, 82, fractured his hip in October and received surgery at Boundary Trails Health Centre between Morden and Winkler, Man.
He tested negative for COVID-19 after being transferred to hospital in Portage la Prairie. Family expected he'd rehabilitate there and be back at his MacGregor care home cracking wise with friends and staff in no time.
Then he got COVID-19; he died Nov. 8. Hodgins and three other patients who had eaten together in the dining room of the locked Portage District General Hospital rehab unit tested positive, said his daughter Val Alderson.
Beyond being informed of that detail by hospital staff before he passed, Alderson says there was no followup. Family was left to wonder how this could happen, she said.
"You know what would be nice? An apology, a written apology to the family: 'I am so sorry that we didn't fulfil our obligation as a health-care provider to protect your loved one,'" said Alderson, who worked for years as a home care nurse before retiring recently.
A CBC News analysis suggests there have been more than seven dozen deaths linked to COVID-19 exposures amid outbreaks in hospital settings since the beginning of the pandemic.
Alderson's family is one of several struggling to grieve the loss of a loved one who entered a Manitoba hospital COVID-free only to be exposed to the virus there and die.
Bioethicist and former social worker Kerry Bowman has spent decades alongside patients and families navigating the hospital and critical care systems.
WATCH | Administrators have obligation to review hospital infection deaths with families, says bioethicist:
He said it's reasonable for families to want more details and an apology.
"When people come to hospitals it's obviously to get better, to heal and to move forward with their lives, and when the exact opposite of that happens because of the hospital experience, rather than the illness itself, you cannot blame families that find this psychologically profoundly difficult," said Bowman, a professor at the University of Toronto's Temerty Faculty of Medicine.
"Often what happens, though, is it gets shut down from a legal point of view: 'We didn't do anything wrong' or 'We don't want to discuss it anymore because it's too risky,' and then you hit a wall. And it's very hard for patients to move forward."
'I still haven't grieved'
That inability to move forward is familiar to a health-care worker whose mother died of a hospital-borne COVID-19 infection in 2020.
"We just never thought she wasn't coming home," she said. "I haven't processed yet. I still haven't grieved properly."
CBC News is withholding her name and other details due to concerns speaking out could impact her job.
Her mother tested negative for COVID-19 when hospitalized in Winnipeg late last year. Things weren't looking great, but her mother's condition started to improve after surgery.
"You can always tell when somebody is doing better. We were FaceTiming here and there somewhat … [my mother] was starting to get bored."
Not long after, an outbreak was declared. Her mother tested positive for COVID-19 and died.
There were no visitors allowed inside the hospital at the time, which suggests she got the illness from a staff person or fellow patient, her daughter said.
But the hospital never confirmed that nor provided other details of how her mother was exposed.
"We put our trust in that system," she said. "I regret not pulling [my mother] out; we could have easily taken care of [her] at home … In my mother's hour of need, we could do nothing."
That erosion of trust underscores why hospital leadership should be deliberate and upfront with families about what they know and don't, said Bowman.
They should also show some sign they recognize what happened was the "antithesis" of what people expect of hospital care, said Bowman.
"Lawyers get very nervous with apologies in case it's associated with culpability, but I would argue the families do have a right to know," he said.
'How could this happen?'
Kevin Kaplan doesn't blame hospital staff for what happened to his father earlier this year. He doesn't hold a grudge.
"You could 'What if?' this to death," he said.
But his family was still left with unanswered questions after his father, Dave Kaplan, died during an outbreak at Winnipeg's St. Boniface Hospital earlier this year.
"We weren't pointing fingers at anybody. We were disappointed, because we were trying to rack our brains, 'How could this happen?'" he said.
Maybe the hospital should give a formal apology ... It's kind of a little bit too late.- Kevin Kaplan
Dave Kaplan had chronic obstructive pulmonary disease. On Jan. 25, the day of his 86th birthday, a hose from the oxygen tank he used to breathe while sleeping became tangled, and he fell out of bed.
He tested negative upon admission to hospital, where doctors later learned he broke his hip. Within days, the hospital had declared a COVID-19 outbreak.
His father was in good spirits as he healed, Kevin Kaplan said. But he then tested positive and died in early February.
"Maybe the hospital should give a formal apology to the loved ones, etc. That's never happened, and maybe that should happen. I don't know. It's kind of a little bit too late."
Families needs apology: Alderson
A CBC News analysis of COVID-19 bulletins reveals at least 93 deaths have been linked to outbreaks in hospital settings since the beginning of the pandemic. Neither the province nor Shared Health, which co-ordinates health-care delivery in Manitoba, provided their own internal totals.
A provincial spokesperson said there were 171 infections in people who reported being exposed to a hospital, urgent care centre or emergency room during their incubation period between, Jan. 21 and Dec. 17. Eight died, according to the province. These deaths are considered community spread cases because the source of acquisition is considered uncertain.
The province and Shared Health declined to provide a response to families interested in receiving an apology.
"We all have our ways of protecting those that are in office," said Alderson.
"The family of Lloyd Hodgins needs an apology."
This story was possible in part thanks to Manitobans who filled out CBC's survey on the pronounced effect COVID-19 is having on Manitoba's health-care system. In it, we asked health-care workers, patients and their loved ones to send us their top concerns and questions about care during the pandemic.