The importance of saying goodbye: Montrealer opts for isolation to spend time with dying father

For Peter Wheeland, two weeks of isolation is a small price to pay to have been at the side of his dying father. Ken Wheeland, 85, is one of nearly 100 Quebec victims of COVID-19 who was a resident of a long-term care home.

Nearly 100 of 150 Quebecers who've died from COVID-19 to date were residents of long-term care homes

Ken Wheeland, 85, died from COVID-19 complications at his LaSalle long-term care home Saturday. (Submitted by Peter Wheeland)

Peter Wheeland will be in self-isolation for the next two weeks, unable to leave his home.  For Wheeland, it's a small price to pay to have been at the side of his father in his final days.

Ken Wheeland is just one of almost 100 elderly Quebecers living in a long-term care residence to have died of COVID-19 since the outbreak began. He died Saturday; he was 85 years old. 

"I was telling him stories about how he had helped shape my life and the positive influence that he played in my life," said Peter Wheeland about those final moments he spent with his father at the LaSalle seniors' home where Ken Wheeland had been living.

"I wanted to make sure that he knew that I appreciated it. I think he did, but I wanted to say it one last time before he died."

Peter Wheeland is far from alone in his grief, as the number of infected seniors' home residents climbs, and along with it, the number of deaths.

It is estimated that COVID-19 may be present in as many as 700 out of the province's roughly 2,200 chronic-care institutions.

In the best-case scenario,1,200 Quebecers will have died of COVID-19 by the end of April, provincial public health officials now project

But depending on how well physical-distancing measures and other restrictions work to curb the spread of the coronavirus, that number could ultimately be much higher — and seniors have proven to be the most likely victims.

Nearly 9 in 10 dead over age of 70

About 88 per cent of Quebec's 150 COVID-19 deaths have been people over the age of 70.

Roughly 65 per cent, or two out of three victims, lived in long-term care residences, said Horacio Arruda, the province's public health director, Tuesday.

Arruda was asked some hard questions about how the outbreak could have infiltrated so many seniors' homes, at such a galloping rate.

"We always said that we were concerned for these vulnerable people," he said, pointing out other jurisdictions are grappling with the same issue.

"I don't have the impression that we underestimated the situation in the residences and CHSLDs," Arruda said.

One problem, he said, is that patient-care attendants and other staff have continued to work with what they may have thought was just a mild cold, and other workers may have been infected but were asymptomatic.

Precautions were in place in all seniors' residences, and visitors were banned in mid-March despite pushback from some families.

A health-care worker brings supplies into the Centre d'hebergement Sainte-Dorothée CHSLD in Laval on Tuesday. (Ryan Remiorz/The Canadian Press)

Montreal area hit hard by infections, death

Some institutions have been hit particularly hard. In total, three out of five long-term care homes (CHSLDs) in Laval have identified COVID-19 outbreaks, and nine people have died.

One of the worst outbreaks is at Laval's Sainte-Dorothée CHSLD, where 105 of 250 residents have been infected, with 15 others still under investigation. 

In Montreal, 39 out of 294 seniors' residences have confirmed coronavirus infections, with some harder hit than others.

Ken Wheeland was one of 14 residents of the LaSalle CHSLD to die after contracting COVID-19, and 29 other residents there have tested positive.

Across the city, the situation remains grim. As of Monday afternoon, nearly 900 people over the age of 70 have contracted COVID-19, according to Montreal's public health authority.

A total of 63 Montrealers have died out of more than 4,400 confirmed cases.

Remembering a role model

Ken Wheeland's COVID-19 infection wasn't confirmed until Sunday, the day after he died. 

Although officially there is a ban on visitors at long-term care homes across the province, Peter and two of his four siblings were allowed to spend time with their father in the days leading up to his death, although they were required to wear extensive personal protective gear during the visit.

Ken Wheeland's wife of 62 years, Connie, wasn't able to be there.

Until recently, the couple lived together at a private long-term care home, the CHSLD Herron in Dorval, but that changed a few weeks ago when Ken Wheeland's condition deteriorated.

Ken and Connie Wheeland had five children. Married 62 years, the two lived in a seniors' home in Dorval before being separated recently when Ken's conditioned worsened. (Submitted by Peter Wheeland)

By the end, Peter Wheeland said, his father could no longer speak, with oxygen tubes hooked to his nose, but his eyes were open and at times, he peered around.

"My father was a very forgiving man," said Peter Wheeland. "When most parents would react with anger or violence — verbal or physical or whatever — my father would respond with compassion."

"I wanted to tell him how much I appreciated that role-modelling that he did not just for me, but for a lot of other people."

With files from Sudha Krishnan

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