The Current

3 Canadians remember loved ones lost to COVID-19, one year after Canada's first related death

The first COVID-19-related death in Canada was on March 8, 2020. Since then, more than 22,000 Canadians have lost their lives to the virus, leaving loved ones to grieve in difficult circumstances.

More than 22,000 COVID-19-related deaths recorded in Canada since March 8, 2020

Keith and Katy Saunders. Keith died from COVID-19 in March 2020. (Submitted by Katy Saunders)

Story Transcript

Katy Saunders remembers the days that her husband Keith would get up early to prep for one of their favourite hobbies — a day of cooking and smoking meat.

She would come downstairs to find the smoker going, their dogs running around outside, and Keith proclaiming: "It's cooking day!"

"I knew I was in for it, because he made a terrible mess. He was an amazing cook — but my kitchen looked like a tornado went through it afterwards," said Katy, who lives in Bowmanville, Ont.

"But those are my favourite memories, it's the two of us spending the day doing something so simple."

Keith died in March last year, one of the earliest deaths in Canada attributed to the COVID-19 pandemic.

"Hold on to your loved ones and tell them how much you love them and appreciate every minute you have with them," Katy told The Current.

"You don't know how long you have with them."

Katy and Keith Saunders. Katy wants people to 'appreciate every minute' they have with their loved ones. (Submitted by Katy Saunders)

Keith Saunders, very positive, always smiling

March 8 marks the one-year anniversary of the first COVID-19-related death in Canada, an 80-year-old man who died in a B.C. care home.

In the 12 months that followed, the CBC's Coronavirus Tracker has recorded 22,238 deaths, while data from John Hopkins University puts the global death toll at almost 2.6 million.

Katy remembers those early days as scary, because not much was known about the virus. Keith worked at a retail store in Oshawa, and came home with stories of people becoming physical and confrontational as he tried to restock items people were panic-buying, like toilet paper and water.

"They were literally climbing on him. One lady spat on him," she said.

Katy Saunders recounts the last time she saw her husband, Keith, before he died from COVID-19. 1:24

Keith tried to laugh it off so that Katy wouldn't be scared when he went to work. She remembers him as, "very positive, always smiling."

"He never batted an eye. He just thought … this is not what's going to solve the problem, a bunch of toilet paper and water," she said.

On March 16, Keith started to feel sick with flu-like symptoms. He was taken to hospital three days later — Katy kissed him on the forehead as he was strapped to the stretcher. She never saw him again; he died alone in hospital on March 25. He was 48.

"You never think that somebody with no underlying issues, who was healthy as can be, could be taken," Katy said.

"And I think that's where my shock came from, is how fast it went and just that he went alone."

She wants people to take the virus seriously, and understand that "social distancing, staying at home, wearing a mask — all of that is to protect us."

Maureen Ambersley, 57, died on Jan. 5 and leaves behind two adult children, Ashley and Floyd Ambersley. She was also a grandmother. (Submitted by SEIU Healthcare)

Maureen Ambersley, a nurse and great baker

Ashley Ambersley said that her mom, Maureen, was always worried about catching COVID-19 — particularly in her role as a registered practical nurse.

"When she heard of little outbreaks at work, she would be so nervous," said Ashley, who lives in Brampton, Ont.

But Ashley's mom refused to miss work, because of the people who relied on her.

"She was always not only looking out for her safety, it was always the residents that she supported." 

Ashley tried to reassure her mother that she would be ok, that she had protective equipment at work, and they'd get through the pandemic together, as a family.

But Maureen started to feel ill in December. She went into hospital at 4 a.m. on Christmas morning, and died on Jan. 5 at age 57.

Ashley Ambersley, right, with her brother, Floyd, left. (CBC)

Ashley remembers her mother as very loving, someone who would give everything she had to make sure someone else didn't go without. 

Maureen was also a great baker, and would often scold Ashley for eating cake batter from the spoon. She often yelled her daughter's name through the house for not having picked up after herself.

"Those are the things that make me smile," Ashley said.

"I just wish I was able to say my goodbyes properly and just to hear her voice one more time."

Ashley wants people who have lost loved ones to remember the good things about them and take solace in the fact that they never truly leave.

"They live within us and they would want us to push forward and to live our lives."

Ken and Connie Wheeland lived in the same care home up until March last year. (Submitted by Peter Wheeland)

Ken and Connie Wheeland, married 63 years

When Ken Wheeland switched care homes last March, he couldn't contact his five children because his new room didn't have a phone. They also couldn't visit, because of lockdown.

After a couple of weeks, Ken's children tried to drop off a cellphone for him, but were told their father was dying.

His son Peter said that looking back, the news came with a silver lining. They were now allowed to see him, under guidelines around visiting for compassionate reasons.

"I'm so grateful for the fact that I had time to talk to my father before he died. Even though he didn't talk to me and I wasn't sure that he could hear what I was saying, just to be able to do that was a blessing," said Peter, who lives in Montreal.

Ken died in the care home in LaSalle, Que., on April 4. He was 85.

Before moving there, he had been living with his wife, Connie, in a care home in Herron, Que. 

The Wheelands were married for 63 years. (Submitted by Peter Wheeland)

Both homes were the sites of deadly outbreaks of the virus, and staffing problems that led to resident neglect and suffering. It was a pattern repeated in care homes across the country, and has become the subject of multiple public inquiries.

Peter said at one point there were two workers trying to help 80 residents at his mother's home, which left her unfed and in soiled diapers.

She was eventually moved to a hospital, where she tested positive for COVID-19.

She survived the virus, but Peter and his siblings refused to return her to the care home, instead finding rented accommodation where they could help to provide care themselves.

He wants long-term care in Canada to offer more choice for seniors, and to keep them in their communities as long as possible.

"We have to stop warehousing seniors as soon as they start to lose a little bit of mobility, we need to have different approaches," he said.

The Wheelands had five children together. (Submitted by Peter Wheeland)

Though she survived COVID-19 in spring, Connie died in December, after a fall. She was 88. 

Peter remembers his mother as being funny. She loved musicals and they would watch Oliver! or My Fair Lady together. His dad was his hero, and both parents were generous and cared a lot about other people.

"They were partners and best friends for 63 years," Peter said.

"I think she didn't die of a broken hip, she died of a broken heart because she missed my father." 

Peter is still living with his grief, and will sometimes "just be watching a TV program and some innocuous thing sends me into a fit of tears."

But he said the last year has brought him and his four siblings closer, and remembers a joke he told orderlies in the hospital last year.

"I was saying, 'I thought they were crazy to have five kids, but it sure makes sense now because there's a lot of us helping out!'" he said.

"That's what got us through the crisis, was family."

Written by Padraig Moran. Produced by Julie Crysler.

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