Families divided by border closure 'extreme oversight' by government says pregnant doctor unable to see spouse

The month-long border closure extension announced Tuesday could not come at a worse time for couple Ashley and Tom Cook. The two doctors live and work on opposite sides of the U.S.–Canada border and have been separated since March — leaving Ashley feeling very alone during a tricky pregnancy. 

Ontario doctor Ashley Cook has been unable to see her husband during tricky pregnancy

Ashley and Tom Cook are expecting their first child together after a four-year-long journey trying to get pregnant. But the doctors live on opposite sides of the Michigan-Ontario border, unable to see each other for months. (Submitted by Ashley Cook)

The month-long border closure extension announced Tuesday could not come at a worse time for couple Ashley and Tom Cook, who are eagerly awaiting the birth of their first child together. 

The two doctors live and work on opposite sides of the U.S.–Canada border and have been separated since March — leaving Ashley feeling isolated during a tricky pregnancy. 

"We have been trying to conceive for almost four years," said Ashley, explaining she's been through multiple rounds of in-vitro fertilization (IVF), including a few trips to Spain for the treatment. 

"It's been a significant journey, a very expensive journey, and there has been a lot of heartbreak and losses along the way."

Ashley is originally from the Kitchener-Waterloo area, but lives and works in Windsor, Ont. to be closer to her husband, Tom, who is a doctor in Michigan. The two met at medical school in the Caribbean and were married during their final year of residency at a Michigan hospital. It was also the year U.S. President Donald Trump was elected and enacted new immigration policies, making it a more difficult and lengthy application process for Ashley to get her green card. 

"I just feel so sad," said Ashley, choking back tears. "I have a hard time talking about this. My husband is missing out on this entire journey that we worked really, really, hard for. It's just more frustrating probably than anything." 

That really ... kind of made it seem to me like I was not going to be able to be present for the birth of my child,- Tom Cook, doctor in Michigan

Tom said although the couple has experienced time away from each other before, this period has been extremely difficult because they're always waiting to see what will happen next. 

"I don't know if I'll be able to see her during the pregnancy, I don't know if I'll be able to be there when the baby is born. And it's been extremely tough on both of us," he said. 

Ashley is due Aug. 24, and said because of the IVF, she's at risk of a preterm birth. Because she's alone without nearby family or friends, Ashley said her obstetrician wrote a note for the couple hoping it would help Tom cross the border. 

Tom said he was pulled into the immigration office at the border, and hoped the doctor's note would help. 

"They actually asked me if Ashley had support and I told them her family was a significant distance away and they were self-isolating so she really hasn't seen anyone," said Tom. "That's when I was pretty sure that I was going to be allowed access. But they just kind of called me up at the end, said that I wasn't qualified as essential by their standards."

Ashley Cook said she's at a high-risk for a preterm birth, so her doctor gave a note for her husband Tom to cross the border because she needs his support. Ashley said the note did nothing to aid her husband when crossing. (Submitted by Ashley Cook)

Tom said he was told that trying to cross the border two weeks before the birth would be too early, but that he'd also need to self-isolate for 14 days to be present at the birth of his child.

"That really directly, but sort of in a roundabout way, kind of made it seem to me like I was not going to be able to be present for the birth of my child," he said. "So, either I'd be coming too early to be admitted, or during a period where I have to quarantine and not be able to be there."

While announcing the border closure on Tuesday, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said the situation would be reviewed again next month. 

WATCH | Ashley Cook shares her experiences with Canada-U.S. border restrictions:

Windsor-Michigan couple separated by COVID-19 border restrictions talk tricky pregnancy

2 years ago
Duration 1:50
Dr. Ashley Cook is currently in Windsor, while her husband Dr. Tom Cook is in Michigan. The couple is expecting their first child, and the ongoing border restrictions have introduced complications to an already tricky pregnancy.

"It was the right thing to further extend by 30 days," said Trudeau. "Our closure of the Canada–U.S. border to travellers other than essential services and goods. But we will continue to watch carefully what's happening elsewhere in the world and around us as we make decisions on next steps."

Ashley called the border closure an "oversight of government" as many are unable to see loved ones. 

"Frankly, I'm pretty frustrated about the whole situation," she said. "I thought this would be relatively short-term ... At this point we're talking almost half a year for many people not able to see their immediate families including spouses and children."

LISTEN | Hear more of Ashley's emotional experience feeling alone while pregnant:

Freeland questioned about CBSA rules for family reunification from the U.S.

2 years ago
Duration 1:30
Deputy Prime Minister Chrystia Freeland spoke with reporters on Parliament Hill on Friday.

On Friday, Deputy Prime Minister Chrystia Freeland suggested those seeking to be reunited with loved ones reach out to government to see if there can be a solution.

"It's a lot of very difficult, very specific decisions the border agents have to make. I will say, as a government, we do encourage them to very much take into account the specific situations of specific families, of specific Canadians, and — where possible — to take a compassionate approach," she said. 

"And where families are having specific difficulties, I encourage them to get in touch with us, to get in touch with their local MPs, and on a case-by-case basis, we can definitely look at what's happening."

WATCH | Chrystia Freeland says government aware "how difficult" border closure can be:

Being health-care workers themselves, Tom feels as though there is a bit of a double-standard when it comes to the policies by public health officials. 

"One of the reasons that they wouldn't let me cross was they consider her a vulnerable person because she's pregnant. But those are the same people who are saying that she's still able to go see patients in the clinic who are just as likely to have coronavirus as I am," he said. "I know I'm a physician and therefore exposed to people with coronavirus but we take every possible measure that we can to protect ourselves." 

Frustrated that he isn't able to see his wife, Tom said it's been hard to see her "break down" after finding out he was stopped. 

"It's affecting both of us in a very significant way," he said. 

The couple has been in contact with local MPs, including Liberal Windsor-Tecumseh MP Irek Kusmierczyk. A spokesperson for Kusmierczyk said they're currently working with Ashley on this issue.

Windsor-Michigan couple understands COVID-19 separation

While Ashley and Tom Cook aren't the only couple separated the COVID-19-related border restrictions between Canada and the U.S., their story is intimately familiar for Windsor resident Haylie Gadsby and her fiancé Mark currently living in Michigan.

Haylie gave birth on May 9 to her and Mark's firstborn son Bentley, but due to the ongoing border restrictions, Mark was unable to gain entry into Canada to be there during childbirth.

"He has contacted the border multiple times to see if he would be able to come across, and they deny him each and every time he calls," Haylie said. 

Ashley Cook has been in the process of getting her green card so she can live with her husband in the U.S. But she said the process has taken a long time, so she's had to live and work in Windsor until the application is completed. (Submitted by Ashley Cook)

"All they say is childbirth is not essential."

Before the pandemic struck, Haylie and Mark had made preparations for the birth of their child, including setting up a fully stocked  nursery in Michigan. 

Since neither Haylie or Mark are able to cross the border, Haylie — who currently shares a one-bedroom apartment with her aunt — said she's had to rely on Facebook groups "where people are giving away free or very cheap hand me downs."

Haylie's and Mark's cross-border story became entwined with Ashley's and Tom's after Haylie came across a Facebook post by Ashley outlining the situation. 

I feel like my hands are tied at this point.- Haylie Gadsby

"Her and I connected, and she's actually reached out to multiple people in both Canada and the United States, and they're saying that there's nothing that can be done," Haylie said. 

In the meantime, Haylie said she plans on continuing doing what she's doing.

"There's nothing more that I can really do. I feel like my hands are tied at this point," she said. "Seeing all of these families together every day and then my family doesn't get to be together, it doesn't seem fair."

With files from Robin Brown, Kaitie Fraser and Windsor Morning


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