Essential caregiver braves Windsor's COVID hotspot to care for loved one
'I would be with her every minute right now if she didn't have COVID'
For the last few weeks, Gisele Harrison has suited up in PPE and walked straight into the region's largest current COVID-19 hot zone: The Village at St. Clair long-term care home.
Harrison's 96-year-old mom, Aline Harrison, is a resident of the home.
Aline's bill of health includes dementia and now, as recently as Sunday, COVID-19.
"When I'm in my [personal protective equipment], she doesn't recognize me. It takes usually until almost the end of my visit, you know if I'm there for two hours or six hours, she'll start to know who I am. But it's sad, she is afraid of me and she's never been afraid of me," Harrison said.
On Monday, Harrison wasn't sure Aline would survive the night — just one day after testing positive for the disease.
"When I'm at home and I know my mother is dying by herself in her room it really breaks my heart and I stay there as long as I can and I'm going everyday," said Harrison as she began to cry.
WATCH: Harrison talks about spending time with her mom in the home
"I would be with her every minute right now if she didn't have COVID and I wasn't scared to contract it myself and pass it on to my family."
Aline is one of 134 other residents at The Village at St. Clair — the region's largest seniors' home outbreak — who have tested positive for the disease.
As of Tuesday, 24 people have died from the illness, while 63 remain active. Meanwhile, 92 staff have gotten sick and 51 cases are still active.
According to Harrison, it's just like her mom to catch COVID-19.
Of all the things that Aline was — a former French reporter, a social worker, a stay-at-home mom — she was also an activist. She advocated for access to bilingual health and legal aid services in Windsor, among many other things.
"I wouldn't put it past my mom to die of COVID-19 so that her death might bring an end to the practice of warehousing old folks in for profit homes," Harrison said in a message to CBC News, noting that her mom was against seniors' homes and feared she would end up in one and be all alone.
Home was 'chaotic,' seems 'calmer' now
Harrison has decided to now advocate for her mom and speak out about how the home has dealt with the pandemic.
Since the home has been in outbreak, Harrison said she didn't truly feel safe or protected inside and she worried about her mom.
At the beginning of the outbreak, when Harrison was still allowed in, she recalled that one day the person working the screening desk, "seemed really scared and told me after he had screened me in that the numbers were high and things were quite bad and it was up to me whether I wanted to go in or not."
She went to visit her mom and said staff seemed "stressed" at the time.
Shortly after this, the home stopped all visitations.
For about a week, Harrison said it was difficult to get any sort of information about her mom's health status.
"Anyone I asked said, 'if you haven't heard, that's good news' and I kept saying that wasn't a good enough answer," she said.
On Dec. 23, the first day that Harrison was allowed back in to the home as an essential caregiver, she described it as "pretty chaotic."
The next day, Christmas Eve, Harrison said she arrived to find her mom sitting in her wheelchair that was wet and covered in food. It was 2:30 p.m. and her mom's lunch was sitting away from her, untouched.
"I got pretty angry and saw the coordinator of her floor and I did let him know what was happening. I was very angry. He immediately told me he would investigate with the day-time staff to see what happened," she said.
"I was very clear and I have been very clear with the staff [that] they are doing a great job, the PSWs and the [nurses] have been doing a wonderful job, my issues were with management in that there were staff shortages, there wasn't any information for me."
Christmas Eve was also when Hotel Dieu Grace Healthcare hospital staff took control of key operations in the home.
Her most recent visits from this past week have been the best yet, she said, as she has felt the most protected.
The home provided her with a rapid COVID-19 test so she wouldn't have to wait to go visit her mom and had her participate in a one-hour PPE training session with other essential caregivers.
"[The home] seems a little calmer, but I do think that part of that is due to management getting support," she said.
"The existing staff did an amazing job caring for people when they were understaffed and didn't have the proper PPE, in my opinion."
Had help come in sooner, Harrison says she doesn't know that lives would have been spared but that likely the transmission "would have been different."
As for the town hall that the home and the hospital held for family members and staff on Monday, Harrison said the key message was the home would communicate better, though she didn't find the rest of it very informative.
For now, she said Aline is recovering well, though she has been put on oxygen.
When reflecting back on the year and everything she has learned about long-term care, Harrison said she hopes those who have died this year due to COVID-19 are remembered for the injustices they exposed.
"I think that as the year ends, we're starting to see that COVID is also shining a really powerful light on the inequities of old folks in nursing homes that are not getting the care that people get when they're in a hospital," she said.