The Current

Mary Ito moved into a seniors' home to care for her parents. Within days they died, and she too had COVID-19

When CBC host Mary Ito got a call saying her mother might have COVID-19, she made a quick decision — to move into their residential home to care for both her parents, aged 92 and 97. It's not a decision she regrets.

'I don't regret it. It was very precious for me to be there,' says Ito of parents' final days

Mary Ito recently lost her parents to complications related to COVID-19. Ito, centre, moved into their seniors' home to care for her father Tsugio, left, and mother, Fumiko, in their final days. (Submitted by Mary Ito)

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After weeks of COVID-19 lockdown in their Toronto retirement home, Fumiko and Tsugio Ito were surprised when their daughter Mary Ito showed up to help care for them.

"When I walked in my Mom said 'What are you doing here?'" said Mary Ito, a longtime broadcaster and former host of Fresh Air on CBC Radio in Ontario.

"She was probably torn to have me [stay or] go, maybe not even realizing … how seriously sick she was and how serious the pandemic was," she told The Current's Matt Galloway. 

"She said, 'it's not necessary for you to be here' but she didn't say for me to leave."

Mary moved in on Easter Sunday, the same day a nurse called to inform her of an outbreak at the home, New Horizons Tower, in Toronto's west end. 

The Ito family, from left: elder sister, Kyoko Laberge, mother, Fumiko and father, Tsugio. Mary Ito is the small child peeking into the frame at the bottom. (Submitted by Mary Ito)

Her mother Fumiko, 92, had been tested. While the results hadn't yet come back, the nurse said her health was already deteriorating. Living in close quarters, it seemed inevitable that Mary's father, Tsugio, 97, had also been exposed.

Mary spoke to the facility's executive director, who said if she wanted to move in, she couldn't leave again while the pandemic persisted, possibly for months. By moving in, Mary was "almost positive" that she, too, would get COVID-19. 

But knowing about the crisis unfolding in understaffed care homes, Mary said she simply "had to go to care for my parents."

"I can't imagine what it would be like to be alone and sick like that." 

She packed a few things and tried to reassure her husband and three adult children — Mark, Michael and Sarah — that she would be OK.

In the weeks that followed, Fumiko and Tsugio both died after contracting COVID-19. Within days of her arrival, Mary also fell ill with the virus. 

Ito's parents and her own children. Left, Fumiko with her grandsons Mark and Michael. Right, Tsugio with granddaughter Sarah. (Submitted by Mary Ito)

From Canada to Japan and back

Tsugio was born in Mission, B.C., an hour outside Vancouver, in 1922. 

His family ran a strawberry farm but fell victim to Japanese internment policies when the Second World War began. The Canadian government confiscated and sold off their land and forced the family to work on an Alberta sugar beet farm for five years. 

When the war ended, the family moved to Japan. There Tsugio met Fumiko, who had grown up 50 kilometres from Hiroshima. Mary remembers her mother telling her she came out of her house one day, to see "that infamous mushroom cloud." 

They married and had a daughter — Mary's older sister, Kyoko Laberge — before moving back to Canada in 1958. 

Watch | Canadian government apologizes to Japanese Canadians for wartime internment:

Canadian government apologizes to Japanese Canadians for wartime internment

33 years ago
A formal apology and compensation package are offered to the Japanese Canadian community. 4:30

Mary described her father as a man of few words, but she once asked him how he felt about returning to the country that had mistreated his family during the Second World War.

"He said: 'War is not fair, and it's over and we move on,'" she recalled.

"I never got the sense that there was any resentment; he just put it behind him and was ready to go on with life and his family."

'I was in over my head'

More than 8,000 people have died of COVID-19 in Canada, with a significant number of those deaths happening in seniors' residences and long-term care homes.

Mary said staff at her parents' facility were run off their feet, short on PPE, and grateful to have her help with at least two of their residents.

Watch | Inside the fight against COVID-19 in long-term care homes:

Inside the fight against COVID-19 in long-term care homes

1 year ago
Additional support has been brought in to some long-term care homes facing COVID-19 outbreaks. David Common talks to staff and the health-care workers brought in for support to hear what’s happening inside. 3:18

But she quickly realized that she was in over her head, and struggled to care for her very ill mother through the day and night.

"She was not able to do really anything for herself," Mary said, adding that often when her mother called for help, there simply wasn't time to put on her mask, gloves and face shield.

"I would second-guess myself. I was constantly cleaning; of course you had to clean with bleach all the time."

Within three days, her mother was moved to hospital with COVID-19, leaving Mary to care for her father in the residential home. 

The next day, Mary was cleaning when her phone rang — it was the hospital.

"My mom had a serious heart attack and they were very concerned," she told Galloway.

She died a week later.

Ito's mother older sister in Gormley, Ont., after arriving from Japan. (Submitted by Mary Ito)

'Bonded' after over 60 years of marriage

Before she died on April 20, Fumiko was reunited with her husband when he was also hospitalized with COVID-19. At the family's request, husband and wife were placed in the same room. 

"He was there when she died … they had to tell him," Mary said.

"And my dad had a look of anguish on his face and put his head in his hands. But he said nothing."

Up to that point, Mary's family had expected him to recover, but she said, "once my Mom died, my dad made the decision that he wanted to go, too."

Her father had spent the last years of his life caring for her mother, who had two earlier heart attacks before the one she experienced during COVID-19.

Fumiko, pictured in Japan before her family moved to Canada. (Submitted by Mary Ito)

"He took that job very seriously," Mary said.

"And so when my mom died, his job was done. And so, he felt, so was he."

He died nine days later of complications related to COVID-19.

"After being married for well over 60 years, they were bonded."

Virus a distraction from grief

Only 17 days had passed since the phone call that prompted Mary to move in with her parents.

Now she was grieving their loss, but also quarantined in their senior's residence, as she battled the virus herself.

Tsugio and Fumiko with their grandchildren, Mark, Michael and Sarah. (Submitted by Mary Ito)

She had initially stayed in the residence in case her father returned from hospital. Now she stayed to ensure she didn't bring the virus home to her husband and children.

She thinks that having COVID-19 helped her in that moment.

"When you're not feeling well, things are kind of blurry and I don't think you feel them that intensely," she told Galloway.

"If I was perfectly well, everything would have been in such clear focus and so painful. It was almost kind of a survival mechanism."

Mary has since recovered from the virus and returned to her family, but still gets out of breath sometimes. She said she has "good days, and very sad days still," but is glad she was there for their final days.

"I don't regret it. It was very precious for me to be there." 

After moving into a care home to look after her parents during COVID-19, Mary Ito was inspired by the resilience of the other seniors who lived there. 1:20

She wasn't able to attend their cremations and will plan a memorial service for a later date. But for now she's remembering them by leaving their little personal effects around.

"My mom's little handbag that she used all the time — I have it on my desk and I look at it," she said. 

"My dad had an old wallet and there's a picture of him when he was younger."

Ito's parents around the time they moved back to Canada in the late 1950s. Her mother, Fumiko, sits with Mary's older sister, Kyoko, left, and their father, Tsugio, right. (Submitted by Mary Ito)

She found other pictures of their younger lives, too, including old passports from when they returned to Canada in the late 1950s.

"They were full of hope at that time, thinking about coming back to Canada, starting a new life. There was so much possibility," she said.

"I'm not sure if that's grieving or a celebration, but that's what I've been doing."

Written by Padraig Moran. Produced by Sarah-Joyce Battersby.

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