Nova Scotia

Nova Scotia cabinet minister reflects on losing his trailblazing mom to COVID-19

Thelma Coward-Ince broke barriers for Nova Scotia's black community. When she died at Northwood on April 17, she was one of the first of dozens of residents to die of COVID-19.

A woman who broke barriers, Thelma Coward-Ince, 86, died of coronavirus and dementia at Northwood

COVID-19 visiting restrictions limited Tony Ince's ability to visit his mother, Thelma Coward-Ince, but he's thankful he spent four hours with her on the day she died. (Craig Paisley/CBC)

Wearing a surgical mask, gloves and a gown over his clothing, Tony Ince held a phone to his mother's ear so she could hear the voice of her daughter, Michele. Then he hugged her tightly and told her over and over how much he loved her. While keeping his mask on his face, he kissed her as she lay in bed, dying from complications of dementia and COVID-19.

Thelma Coward-Ince, 86, died April 17 and was one of the first residents at Northwood to die of coronavirus.

The Halifax long-term care home was her home for the last five years, and it's the epicentre of Nova Scotia's coronavirus outbreak.

The virus has claimed the lives of 35 residents — the vast majority of the 41 deaths attributed to the virus in the province.

"It just all seems so surreal," said Ince, 62, after emerging from 14 days of self-isolation and solitary grief since his mother's death.

Nova Scotia's minister of African Nova Scotian Affairs said his overwhelming feeling right now is the absence of any emotions: numbness.

Originally from Whitney Pier, Cape Breton, Coward-Ince moved to Halifax with her aunt and uncle. She joined the Canadian navy at 16, became the first black naval reservist, the first black secretary to the chief of staff to the admiral and the first black manager of the ship repair unit, said her obituary.

Coward-Ince was a member of the Nova Scotia mass choir, a friend to many, and raised her children, Michele and Tony, on her own, who are shown in the far right photo. (Robert Short/CBC)

Coward-Ince achieved these feats while raising two children on her own in the public housing community of Mulgrave Park in north-end Halifax — Ince's father left the family when he was just two.

Coward-Ince later went back to school and earned a bachelor of arts degree from Mount Saint Vincent University.

Premier Stephen McNeil said he met Coward-Ince many times times and "adored her" good character and sense of humour.

"She grew up at a time when discrimination was rampant and she continued to find her way to set many markers for herself, for women in this province, and quite frankly for all of us," McNeil said at the Tuesday COVID-19 press conference.

Coward-Ince was also an avid community volunteer, a member of St. Thomas Baptist Church in North Preston and sang with the Nova Scotia Mass Choir before she became ill in 2013.

Coward-Ince was interviewed by CBC News in 1997 about elder abuse among families from immigrant and ethnic minority groups. (CBC News)

For Ince, the painful experience of saying goodbye to his mother has been complicated by physical distancing restrictions put in place by public health because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

With family across the country, a service to celebrate Coward-Ince's life will have to wait until restriction are lifted.

"I've done the whole grieving process in reverse," said Ince.

In usual times, the period of reflection and solitude would follow after a wake and a funeral when people come together to share grief.

Ince holds a recent photo of his mom, right, in her room at Northwood. She's pictured with her sister, Clotilda Yakimchuk. (Elizabeth Chiu/CBC)

Coward-Ince's positive test result for COVID-19 didn't come until after she died, but precautions as if she had the disease were already in place.

Ince's visits at Northwood were limited to four hours. While there's a no-visitation policy in place at Nova Scotia hospitals and nursing homes, exceptions can be made for patients nearing death.

Even though workers told him he could stay longer, Ince, a stickler for rules, left her shared room on April 17 during the afternoon. As he was driving back to Northwood that evening, he got the call his mother had just died.

Signs of support for the residents and workers at Northwood, which has been hard hit by the COVID-19 pandemic in Nova Scotia. (Robert Short/CBC)

"I can take myself down that rabbit hole and it could not be nice," Ince said of his sorrow of not being with his mother as she took her last breath.

There's also deep sadness that his frequent visits to his already-frail mother had to stop in the five weeks before she died.

At the start of the pandemic, Ince's mother understood that visitors were not allowed, he said. But she had Alzheimers disease and the thought she might have felt abandoned torments him.

"I can't help but think that she was probably trying to wonder why nobody was coming in to see her, and that for me is what bothers me more than anything else," he said.

'I'm thankful that I had what I had'

As difficult as the restrictions were, Ince knows he had an opportunity that many others haven't had, which has helped give him some closure.

"I'm thankful that I had what I had," he said.

On the same weekend Coward-Ince died, a gunman took the lives of 22 people in a mass shooting rampage in rural Nova Scotia.

"How are those families making sense of what they're dealing with in this strange time?" Ince said. "We're all dealing with this craziness, they've got that compounded with a senseless act."

Praise for Northwood staff

Ince has praise for Northwood, the home his mother chose because of her many friends who lived there, the music and activities that happen at the facility, and because it was close to Mulgrave Park.

Health officials have said that the virus was brought into the facility by workers. What's known about the virus — such as the risk of transmission from asymptomatic carriers — is continuing to evolve, Ince noted.

In the days before Coward-Ince died, she developed a fever. Workers would hold the phone to her ear so he could talk to her. And near the end, staff called him — he should come.

Ince is thankful to them, many of whom are single mothers like his mom, who continued to work even as the contagious virus spread through the facility.

"It's not an easy job," he said.

Thelma Coward-Ince broke barriers for Nova Scotia's black community. When she died at Northwood on April 17, she was one of the first of dozens of residents to die of COVID-19. 3:14

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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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