Nfld. & Labrador

A year after Caul's cluster, couple looks back on harrowing experience early in COVID-19 pandemic

Last March, when Cheryl and Laurie McLean were heading to a wake at Caul's Funeral Home in St. John's, they had no idea they were about to be part of one of the largest superspreaders of COVID-19 in Canada at the time.

'No one thought they had COVID at that point, I think,' says Laurie McLean of early infection

Laurie and Cheryl McLean at Quidi Vidi are pictured in October 2019, months before the COVID-19 pandemic took hold in Canada, and Laurie became sick with the virus. (Submitted by Cheryl McLean)

Last March, when Cheryl and Laurie McLean were heading to a wake at Caul's Funeral Home in St. John's, they had no idea they were about to be part of one of the largest superspreaders of COVID-19 in Canada at the time.

The McLeans had heard about coronavirus by then, and they knew they were supposed to keep apart from people who were sneezing or coughing.

But Cheryl noted the pandemic hadn't yet fully taken its grip on the province.

"We were aware that there was public health rumblings about this, and the group of friends that we knew, that we were talking to at the wake, we were standing back a little bit, probably not six feet, but there was no hugging and nobody there was sneezing, coughing, which was the caution at that time," said Cheryl.

The legs literally fell out from under me.- Cheryl McLean

Neither she nor her husband remember being overly concerned

"I don't recall being worried, to tell you the truth," said Laurie.

"Not worried, but respecting the direction to be cautious," Cheryl said, adding that based on the information available, not attending the wake wasn't something they considered. "I think at that point, the first case was only declared the day before, and I don't know if we had even heard that."

The wake for Shannon Fleming was on March 15, and businesses, bars and restaurants were all still open. Newfoundland and Labrador's first presumptive case of COVID-19 was indeed not announced until the day prior, on March 14, and confirmed five days later. The first case of local transmission in Canada was detected 10 days prior, in Vancouver.

It was March 18, 2020, when Newfoundland and Labrador declared a public health emergency, ordering businesses to close and restricting gatherings.

But it was too late for Laurie McLean, who was one of the dozens who had unknowingly picked up the COVID-19 virus at the wake.

"It came on gradually, and I guess a couple of days after the wake, after Caul's, I became sick," he said, "but I still didn't think I had COVID because it was a couple of days and I was still walking back and forth to the mailbox."

He remembers seeing a neighbour, and telling them he had a cold and to keep their distance, just in case.

In mid-March 2020, Canadians had not yet realized the full extent or reach of the COVID-19 pandemic. The wake for Shannon Fleming, 36, at Caul's Funeral Home in St. John's came just 10 days after the first case of local transmission of the virus in Canada, in Vancouver. (CBC)

"I didn't think I had COVID — no one thought they had COVID at that point, I think," Laurie told CBC's On The Go this week.

Cheryl said she watched her husband develop symptoms over those days at home.

"He said he felt like he got hit by a truck. He had a fever in the form of chills and he was shaking, he had a terrible headache, he had kind of a pressing weight in his lower back and … except for the fever, these weren't consistent with the symptoms that were being publicized at the time," she said. "But he was very, very ill."

Laurie kept his distance in the house, to try to contain the illness.

"I had the sense to move to our spare bedroom, because I didn't want her to get this cold. I thought I had a bad cold, and I didn't want to spread that to Cheryl."

'Within 24 hours he was on ventilator'

After a week fighting what they thought to be a cold, they had to call an ambulance to take him to the hospital.

"Finally when I couldn't breathe — well, that made the decision for me, basically," Laurie said.

The next week and a half or so is a blur: Laurie ended up being put on a ventilator and brought into the ICU, where he would stay for about 11 days, Cheryl said.

"He went to the hospital Friday noon. By Saturday noon, the ICU doctor called me and said he was being moved from the COVID ward up to ICU because his condition was deteriorating, and an hour after that she called back again and said he had to be put on a ventilator, so it was within 24 hours he was on ventilator," Cheryl said.

"The legs literally fell out from under me when she said that. Because the way she worded it, she said he's going to be on life support and a ventilator inserted, so you know life support to me, as I've heard it in the past, that's end of life."

For Laurie, it's a bit harder to recall the experience.

"I was unconscious, I was quite feverish and ill throughout that, but I'm not aware of that, basically," Laurie said.

Cheryl and Laurie McLean enjoy some outdoor coffees at the Battery Cafe in St. John's in August, after Laurie made a full recovery from COVID-19. (Submitted by Cheryl McLean)

"I recall coming awake in the ICU.… I recall doctors and nurses coming in to visit me and check on me and stuff like that, so I was aware of that then, but I was still kind of in and out of consciousness and having crazy dreams and stuff like that."

It was a harrowing couple of weeks for Cheryl, who wasn't able to enter the hospital to visit her husband's bedside — although, she said, she's not sure it would have eased her mind.

Cheryl said she and Laurie were at the wake with four other couples — 10 people total, with varying degrees of illness. Only two of them managed to avoid contracting the virus, Cheryl said, herself included, although she's not sure how.

"Like Teflon," she said, as her husband laughed. "There was no rationale to it, no rhyme or reason," Cheryl said.

Laurie said by the time he was conscious and moved back to the COVID ward, he had started improving fairly quickly, getting his appetite back and eating as much as they offered him at the hospital. The day he went home, he took his dog for a walk, and went further and further each day to regain his strength.

'There's no need to do it again'

A year later, much more is known about the virus and how it spreads, and public health measures are in place across Newfoundland and Labrador to limit the spread.

The Avalon Peninsula is also making its way to lower alert levels, after an outbreak and community spread of the B117 variant that infected hundreds in a matter of weeks.

Cheryl and Laurie want to focus on the level of care they received from the team that brought Laurie back around.

"The medical team in the ICU was so fabulous. I can't say enough about the doctors and the nurses in that unit," Cheryl said.

"I called them four times a day for updates because as you know I wasn't allowed in the hospital. They gave me any information that I asked about, they talked to me as long as I wanted to. I was very confident in terms of what they were doing to help him recover."

Laurie doesn't have any lingering side effects to date, although Cheryl said her husband's voice was strained for months after being on the ventilator.

"His voice was very raspy and weak, it didn't sound like even he was the same person … and the COVID unit doctor said this is not unusual for somebody who's been on a ventilator for an extended period because the vocal cords are actually crushed," Cheryl said.

"They said it can take several weeks or a longish time for it to recover, so 10 weeks later there was no change at all, which I found a little bit worrisome."

The medicinal properties of Guinness

In June, a friend in Ottawa retired and moved back to St. John's. To celebrate her return, after her quarantine period was up, the three had a night of celebration during which Cheryl said Laurie "consumed much Guinness," his favourite beer.

The next afternoon, "I stopped in my tracks and said, 'Your voice is perfect.' And it was, and it's been ever since," Cheryl said, with a joke about the medicinal qualities of Guinness.

Both McLeans are too young and "not sick enough" to sign up for the COVID-19 vaccines yet, Laurie said, but once they're eligible, they'll be on the list.

"There's no need to do it again, I think."

Read more from CBC Newfoundland and Labrador

With files from On The Go