Nova Scotia·Video

A matriarch, lovingly remembered, dies of COVID-19 at Nova Scotia's hotbed for the virus

Evelina Upshaw was 94 when she died of COVID-19 and dementia in Northwood, the care home that's the centre of Nova Scotia's outbreak. Her daughters are angry at how rapidly the virus spread in the facility.

Daughters are relieved mom is no longer suffering, but furious at Northwood for COVID's rampant spread

Evelina Upshaw was 94 when she died of COVID-19 and dementia in Northwood, the care home that's the centre of Nova Scotia's outbreak. Her daughters are angry at how rapidly the virus spread in the facility. 2:14

Mother Upshaw. Queen of the Park.

They are Evelina Upshaw's nicknames, lovingly earned and bestowed.

Upshaw died of COVID-19 and dementia at the Northwood long-term care home in Halifax on May 8, two days before Mother's Day. She was 94.

Her nicknames are fitting for a woman who ran a hot lunch program for about 100 kids a day at her church, then known as Cornwallis Baptist, in Halifax for 33 years. When the program ended, she was 78.

For another decade, she kept feeding kids, helping out at a breakfast program that served nearly just as many kids each a day in her neighbourhood, Mulgrave Park, a public housing community in the city's north-end. She also helped out at the local food bank.

The foundation of a full belly

The community matriarch believed having a full belly was the foundation for everything. 

"She's always loved kids, she's always believed that all children should get an equal opportunity for their education," said Darlene Upshaw-Tynes, the youngest of Evelina's six children.

Northwood has been at the centre of the virus in Nova Scotia. As of Sunday's update, 49 of 55 COVID-19 deaths in the province have occurred there.

Evelina Upshaw was featured in a CBC National news documentary about Canadian volunteers in 2002. (CBC)

Death by COVID-19 has complicated the grieving process, and it's magnified for some of Northwood's families devastated by the virus's grip on the nursing home.

There's heartbreak and sadness, peace and acceptance, and also confusion and anger. For Upshaw's family, her death has triggered all of that.

In particular, they're furious at Northwood management for not doing more to reduce the risk of COVID-19 to seniors like their mom.  

'All those lives'

"It went through that building like hot fat, just boom, all through the building, all those lives," said Debi Upshaw in an interview with her sister, Darlene Upshaw-Tynes.

Debi and Darlene are two of three triplets. They still live in Mulgrave Park, a close-knit community.

About four years ago, Evelina had to say goodbye to the row house she'd called home for six decades. The stairs became too much.

While in her apartment at Acadia Lodge, she took a tumble and broke her neck. She developed dementia shortly after and her condition went downhill.

She moved into the nursing home in January 2019.

Northwood's long-term care facility in Halifax has approximately 485 residents in two separate buildings. (Robert Short/CBC)

Her family has had several complaints about Northwood's care.

But everything came to a head on April 21 when Evelina tested positive for COVID-19. By that time, there were 152 cases, 112 of them were residents.

On April 16, five days earlier, there were 42 residents, and 26 staff infected with the disease. An information memo from Northwood said it was "very pleased to be in the position of providing all of our staff PPE where indicated." 

The first confirmation of an infection was in a worker on April 5.

Debi is angry that masks and other protective clothing weren't provided sooner. 

Pleas went unheard, family says

"Whenever they left to go home, wherever they contracted it from, they would bring it into work with them," said Debi. "These seniors can't fight off these germs and that, so of course they're going to get it," she said.

They're angry their pleas to have her kept in her private room were ignored. They suspect that's how Evelina became infected.

"They didn't listen. And she was out at the meal tables … with these other people, and that's when we said, 'Mom's gonna get it. They're not listening,'" said Debi.

Her family says they received regular updates from staff saying Evelina was holding up fine, despite being infected.

There was no way to ask Evelina. She was unable to speak.

Upshaw-Tynes says the family asked Northwood if they could make video calls so their mother could see their faces. But those video calls were not arranged. 

A few days before Evelina died, Debi learned her mom had not been eating or drinking. 

Not long after, there was another call. It was time to come. 

Evelina's whole life was marked by hard work and perseverance.

She grew up the third of 15 children in Windsor, N.S., and dropped out of school to care for her younger siblings.

She gave birth to 15 children, though only six survived childbirth or infancy — including Nova Scotia's first set of black triplets born in 1962. 

When Evelina Upshaw gave birth to Nova Scotia's first set of black triplets, it made news. (Elizabeth Chiu/CBC)

The arrival of the multiples was too much for their father. He left the family shortly after.

"She said those are my babies to raise, so I'm going to raise them, and she did," said Debi. "Like she said, only by the grace of God did she make it through."

Evelina relied on community and church support to raise her six kids. Despite being a single mother, and holding down a job, she went to night school and completed her high school diploma.

Pandemic restrictions meant having to choose who among her children would be with Evelina in her final moments. 

It was Debi, the eldest of the triplets. She'd been Evelina's caregiver and then her daily visitor at Northwood. On Evelina's good days, she still remembered her. 

In her mother's room adorned with family photos, and a picture of Jesus, Debi climbed into Evelina's bed, and sang and hugged her. She could feel heat from the fever rising off her mother's belly.

Debi Upshaw, on the left, and her triplet sister, Darlene Upshaw-Tynes, remember how vibrant their mom was at her 90th birthday party. (Brian MacKay/CBC )

"Even when I laid on the bed, and put my arm around her and told her how much I love her, and how much I'm going to miss her, and I didn't think of the COVID," said Debi.

Covered from head to toe in protective clothing, she kissed her mother's forehead and closed her eyes.

To Debi, it's a beautiful memory to know she was there at the very end for her mother who never gave up on her.

'You can go home'

"I whispered in her ear, 'Mommy, everybody has called and said goodbye that I can think of. You can go home.' And off she went," said Debi.

"She could rest in peace. All I could think about is, 'Lord, thank you for taking Mommy home."'

On Tuesday, there will be a funeral. It will be limited to four siblings and the minister. 

A celebration of life will happen once pandemic rules allow for larger gatherings.

Family from around the country, friends from church, and neighbours want to honour the woman who was featured in a 2012 video after winning a community vote that earned her a new title.

Mother Upshaw, the Queen of the Park, was named Mulgrave Park's hero.

CBC Nova Scotia is sharing stories of the victims of COVID-19 to commemorate those we've lost to the pandemic. If you've lost a loved one and want to share your memories of them, reach out via cbcns@cbc.ca.

About the Author

Elizabeth Chiu is a reporter in Nova Scotia and hosts Atlantic Tonight on Saturdays at 7 p.m., 7:30 p.m. in Newfoundland. If you have a story idea for her, contact her at elizabeth.chiu@cbc.ca.

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