Montreal

At least 2,317 Quebecers have died of COVID-19 so far this year. One of them is Jennifer Hwang

March 11 is the second official National Day of Remembrance for Victims of COVID‑19 in Quebec, a day marked by flags at half-mast but little fanfare. But for people like Marc Bouliane of Laval, Que., it is a day to remember the 28 years he had with his wife, who died one month ago, at 50.

'They have faces; they have families': On 2nd day of mourning, all are urged to reflect on pandemic's victims

Jennifer Hwang had survived several rounds of chemotherapy but died after complications related to COVID-19 in mid-February. (Courtesy Marc Bouliane)

Jennifer Hwang could light up a room. 

Marc Bouliane, her husband, described his wife as a bright and bubbly person: someone who was kind and caring and, most importantly, brave — the kind of person who always went all-in.

"She had very, I call it, an uncanny ability for empathy," Bouliane said. "She really was able to understand what people were feeling or going through … listening to their daily plight and trying to help people along the way."

They would have celebrated their 27th wedding anniversary this year.

But on Feb. 12, almost two months after she tested positive for COVID-19, Hwang died. She was 50 years old.

March 11 marks the second official National Day of Remembrance for Victims of COVID‑19 in Quebec — though you'd be forgiven for not realizing it.

The Quebec government honoured victims on this day last year, with great fanfare. But this year, there will be no ceremony. A spokesperson for Premier François Legault's office explained that instead, flags will be flying at half-mast on government buildings across the province and abroad.

The day of mourning comes just as the Quebec government prepares to repeal many of its COVID-19 restrictions. 

As of Saturday, vaccine passports will no longer be mandatory anywhere in the province, and capacity restrictions in bars and restaurants will be lifted.

Quebecers continue to die of COVID-19, however. According to Quebec's institute of public health (INSPQ), at least 2,317 Quebecers died due to complications of SARS-CoV-2 in 2022 alone.

One of them was Hwang.

Jennifer Hwang, right, is seen here at her brother's wedding in 2018. Her husband Marc Bouliane described her as a bubbly person who lit up a room. (Courtesy Marc Bouliane)

'We did everything in our power'

Hwang's recent years were marked by health problems. In 2019, she had been diagnosed with follicular lymphoma, a type of cancer that affects the immune system.

"The last three Christmases, essentially, my wife has been in the hospital in one form or another," Bouliane said.

Hwang went through two rounds of chemotherapy. Meanwhile, Bouliane said the family was careful to try to keep her protected from COVID-19. Everyone was vaccinated, including Hwang, who had three doses. Bouliane alone said he spent over 70 days in isolation over the course of the pandemic, to ensure he wouldn't inadvertently infect his wife with the virus.

In 2021, he said, Hwang appeared to be on the mend. Pictures from her 50th birthday, celebrated last July, show an apparently healthy Hwang smiling brightly, with a head full of hair. 

Jennifer Hwang stands next to her husband, Marc Bouliane, as they celebrated her 50th birthday last year. The two would have celebrated their 27th anniversary this summer. (Courtesy Marc Bouliane)

"We did everything that was ever our power to protect her, and then through two rounds of chemo, no problem," Bouliane said. "And as things look up — pow! It hits you in the teeth."

A friend came for dinner on Dec. 12. Their guest didn't show symptoms of COVID-19 until the next morning, but it was too late — Hwang was infected.

In the following weeks, a historic wave of COVID-19 cases would come crashing down on Quebec, forcing the government to close public testing and impose sudden restrictions. Officials would later estimate that more than two million Quebecers caught COVID-19 in this period.

Ten days after that fateful dinner, Hwang was admitted to the Jewish General Hospital, where she had been receiving her cancer treatment. In early January, she was intubated and placed in a medically induced coma. 

Bouliane, who was allowed to visit and stay by her side throughout her hospitalization, said her heartbeat became increasingly erratic. "I said to a doctor, like — how long can this last?"

Hwang died on Feb. 12 after going into cardiac arrest, 53 days after first being infected with COVID-19. In addition to her husband, Hwang is survived by their three children.

Jennifer Hwang, centre-left, stand with her brother Jason, centre, at his wedding, surrounded by her husband Marc, right, and their three children, Chloé, Alec and Éric. (Courtesy Marc Bouliane)

"We all miss her," an emotional Bouliane said, through tears. "In the end, she's at peace, and we have to remember her like that."

Despite how difficult their last few years had been, he said he counts himself lucky to have found his best friend and soul mate.

"Few people can claim to have had that in their lifetime," he said. "So even though I hopefully have 40-plus years left in my life, I was fortunate to have 28 years with Jennifer, and to know what it is to find a person like that."

Doctors, epidemiologists reflect on 2 years of COVID

Dr. Joseph Dahine, an intensive-care specialist at Cité-de-la-Santé hospital in Laval, said he'll be thinking about the patients that he lost — including those in the most recent wave of the pandemic.

"It hasn't been easier because a vaccine was available or we became better at treatments," he said. "These people have names; they have faces; they have families and their personal stories that I'll probably remember for the rest of my life."

"I just want to acknowledge that for some of those people, that their deaths were preventable, unfortunately."

Dr. Joseph Dahine, an intensive-care specialist at Laval's Cité de la Santé hospital, said, 'I'll probably remember for the rest of my life,' the personal stories of those he has witnessed die of COVID-19 over the past two years. (Ivanoh Demers/Radio-Canada)

Epidemiologist Prativa Baral said as Quebecers move toward living with the virus, it doesn't mean pretending that the virus doesn't exist — or that we haven't reached this point without paying an enormous human cost.

"I think it's easy for us to think through these statistics and these numbers and say, 'Oh, we lost X number of people,'" she said.

"But every single person that we lost was a human, was a friend, was a family member, was a sister, a brother, someone that people deeply cared about and who did not deserve to die prematurely as a result of these chaotic times that we're in."

"How do we build back better so that we don't have to go through this sheer amount of loss ever again?"

As the province reopens, Baral said she hopes the government will learn to better anticipate COVID waves, instead of just reacting to them as they come.

As for Marc Bouliane, Jennifer Hwang's husband, he said despite what he's been through, he knows the province can't stay locked down indefinitely.

"I said it in the eulogy, and in the obituary: my wife died of COVID. It's a real thing," he said. "But on the other hand, we need to try to manage."

"You can't lock society down for somebody like my wife."

With files from Daybreak's Jessica Wu

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