Nova Scotia

Family angered by death of 'vibrant' Northwood resident Bunny Tanner

Bunny Tanner, 84, died of COVID-19 on May 1 at Northwood, the epicentre of Nova Scotia's outbreak. Her daughter says Tanner pulled through lung cancer last year and she thought she would pull through COVID-19, too.

Bunny Tanner, born and raised in Halifax, died at 84 after contracting COVID-19

Bunny Tanner, 84, died of COVID-19 at the Nortwhood long-term care facility in Halifax. (Submitted by Bev Gaudet)

Bunny Tanner pulled through lung cancer about a year ago, so when COVID-19 hit Nova Scotia — and the long-term care facility where she lived — her daughter thought Tanner would pull through that, too.

"She was a fighter," Bev Gaudet said of her mother.

But Tanner died May 1 at the Northwood long-term care home in Halifax. Northwood has seen more than 80 per cent of the province's COVID-19 deaths.

Tanner, 84, wasn't showing symptoms when she first tested positive for COVID-19, so Gaudet remained optimistic, but it wasn't long before the disease flared up in Tanner's lungs. Speaking to her daughter over the phone, Tanner struggled to finish sentences without losing her breath.

Tanner was born and raised in Halifax. She raised her two daughters in the suburb of Clayton Park where she lived for 55 years with her husband, Charles Tanner. 

"She was strong and strict. She was a good mom," said Gaudet.

In addition to raising her children, Tanner held a variety of different jobs over the years. She worked on the floor of retailers like Sears and Walmart, and as a hospital cleaner.

But her favourite job was being a grandmother, said Gaudet.

"I think her life as a grandma was probably her best memories, her best happy memories," she said.

Bunny Tanner with her daughter, granddaugther and son-in-law at her granddaughter's graduation from the Nova Scotia Community College. (Submitted by Bev Gaudet)

Settling into Northwood

Tanner lived alone for several years after her husband's death and moved into Northwood last March. She liked the nurses who cared for her, and her daughter said they liked her back.

Tanner was happy to have settled into a private room just before Christmas. Gaudet said she helped her mother "set it up so nice," with her own furniture and pictures on the walls.

"She was just happy in that room," she said.

Gaudet's last routine visit with her mother was in the last week of February.

"She was in her room in Northwood and she was vibrant and alive and positive and happy," Gaudet recalled.

Bev Gaudet said she and her mother Bunny Tanner had fun even doing mundane things like running errands at the dollar store. (Submitted by Bev Gaudet)

Then, Gaudet and her husband took a vacation. By the time they returned, public health officials were recommending that all travellers self-isolate for 14 days upon entering the province. 

On March 16, Northwood stopped allowing visitors to enter or residents to leave.

Gaudet, like many people with loved ones in long-term care during the pandemic, kept in touch with her mother by phone, but didn't see her for the whole month of March.

On a phone call in mid-April, she learned Tanner was being moved to a different room, as the facility created its first isolated COVID-19 unit. Tanner's new room was still private, but Gaudet said it was smaller and some of her belongings had to be placed in storage.

Gaudet said staff tried to make the new space comfortable for her mother, "but it was nothing like what she had [before]."

In retrospect, Gaudet marked that as the point "when things started to really go downhill."

A final visit

Gaudet said she's haunted by some of the last phone calls she had with her mother, during which Tanner made "frantic" pleas to be moved out of Northwood.

Gaudet said staff had become slow to respond to her mother's calls for help getting out of bed, and she was frightened and stressed because there was "sickness all around her."

She looked into other long-term care options, but learned any move would have to wait until after the pandemic. 

"I had no place to put her. I am not set up in my apartment at all to take care of my mother, [so] I said that when this is over, I'll try."

Toward the end of April, Tanner became ill and was put on oxygen, and Northwood staff invited Gaudet to come in for a final visit. She donned personal protective equipment upon entering the facility and stayed with her mother through the night.

Tanner died on May 1. 

Charles and Bunny Tanner on their wedding day. (Submitted by Bev Gaudet)

Gaudet said her grief is overshadowed by anger with the province and Northwood administrators. She doesn't think either responded quickly enough to the threat of COVID-19.

Northwood has been hit harder by COVID-19 than any other facility or region of the province. As of May 11, 42 of Nova Scotia's 48 coronavirus deaths occurred at Northwood.

For weeks, Chief Medical Officer of Health Dr. Robert Strang has said it's his main area of concern.

But Strang has defended the province's response. He said public health and Northwood took all the appropriate precautions and made all the appropriate interventions, based on the information that was available at the time.

Gaudet said she takes no comfort in that. She thinks earlier masking, earlier intervention by the province and more testing early on could have saved lives, including her mother's.

"I hear Dr. Strang say that they've done everything possible," she said. "And I just don't feel that they have."

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