By Steve Hubrecht
Imagine this. You’re outside of Canada on vacation. Suddenly you are gravely ill, then hospitalized. The multiple conditions besetting you are life threatening, but you have to advocate constantly to get even moderate care, let alone a proper diagnosis. The pain is unbearable, and you are rapidly deteriorating physically and mentally. You may be dying. In fact, you know you’re dying. Then the COVID-19 pandemic hits full force, and you’re stuck in full-scale lockdown. You can’t leave. Nobody can visit you. No friends, no family. Not even your husband, who is a doctor. Not even your five-year-old son. All around you the world, in the veritable blink of an eye, has gone from normal to something else entirely, a place where the doors of schools and shops are locked shut, city streets are eerily empty, and the television beams in images of health workers clad in Tyvek suits and masks. You are completely alone. And things are getting worse by the day.
Stop imagining, this isn’t make-believe: this was the terrifying reality faced by Invermere resident Brittany Schaffer earlier this spring, when she spent nearly a month stuck in a Texas hospital as COVID-19 exploded across the U.S. and Canada.
Vacation on the border
Brittany was in McAllen, a mid-sized border-town city at the very southern tip of Texas, just across the Rio Grande from teeming Reynosa. She went, along with her son Calder, to visit her mother-in-law Dorothy. McAllen has been in the headlines plenty in recent years: It’s the site of the largest immigrant processing facility in the U.S.. Those images of migrant children being separated from their parents at the border? Many of them are taken in McAllen. But beyond the news reports, McAllen is, by many accounts, quite an appealing place. There’s a warm dry climate all winter, plenty of Hispanic culture and great restaurants. The cost of living is low and the town more than lives up to its ‘City of Palms’ nickname. In other words, it’s a great place to visit. Or to be a seasonal resident, like Dorothy, who spends her winters there, surrounded by many other members of her extended family.
The vacation started out pleasantly. Brittany and Calder arrived on March 9, and were enjoying quality time with Dorothy and the rest of the family in Adobe Wells, a gated snowbird mobile home community within McAllen. Think ‘mobile home community’ is a euphemism for a down-at-heels trailer park? Thing again. Adobe Wells is smart and upscale, with beautiful double-wide mobile homes set on meticulously landscaped grounds with immaculate lawns, and ‘Texas rooms’ attached. A Texas room is a huge sunroom-like living space: part outdoor patio, part indoor family room, with large comfortable couches, televisions and often with gorgeous tiled floors.
Calder enjoyed riding around on a two-wheeler bike two sizes too small for him, even if it made his knees come up to his chest and resulted in a few extra wipeouts. There were dips in the swimming pool for a break from the 30 degree-plus heat, and plenty of delicious botanas (platters of chicken, beef, cheese, beans, rice and crushed taco chips) and fresh-made gas station breakfast burritos to go around. Of course food and fun are part of any get together with Dorothy’s side of the family – a mix of Canadian, American, Ecuadorian and Argentine heritage, all descended from Russian Mennonites by way of Saskatchewan. The COVID-19 epidemic had begun, and was battering China and Italy. Cases in the U.S. were small in number at that point, but climbing rapidly. In a matter of just a few days, several hot spot cities, such as Seattle and New York, were overwhelmed and major events and public institutions throughout the U.S. were being cancelled and closed left, right and centre. McAllen was far from the hot spots, and Brittany noticed that the attitude there seemed relaxed. Too relaxed.
“We started taking social distancing protocols because we had been listening to Canadian recommendations,” said Brittany. “We couldn’t find any information coming out of Texas to provide guidance to the situation.” She and Calder played it safe, deciding not to venture past the Adobe Wells entrance gate.
A worrying situation suddenly grew much more complicated and much more personal as by March 13, severe health troubles landed Brittany in the local hospital. The care she got was spotty at best, a stark contrast to the building’s brand new, sparkly appearance, everything gleaming and accentuated with pillars and pink stucco. She was shunted off to a holding area for her first few days in the hospital, with little medical attention. The only bright spot was that Dorothy was allowed to stay by her side.
Meanwhile COVID-19 continued detonating across the U.S., with new cases erupting everywhere.
Brittany was taken aback by the hospital’s seemingly lackadaisical approach to the pandemic. “Zero precautions by healthcare staff were being taken. It appeared as though COVID-19 did not exist,” she said. She asked the staff why and found they’d been given literally no information on procedures or policies for COVID-19. It was only on March 17, four days into her stay, that hospital workers began taking measures for the virus.
This despite the tumult unfolding across the continent, with grocery store shelves emptying out, students sent home from school, businesses shutting down, and people holing up at home, holding their figurative breath. In the middle of all this chaos, Brittany’s condition quickly become critical, literally life-threatening. She realized she required hospitalization for an indefinite, extended time period. She was far too sick to even think about being transferred to Canada by medevac flight.
Last night together
Brittany’s husband Edward had been trying to get to Texas, starting from the moment she went to the hospital, urgently at first and then increasingly frantic, but was thwarted at every turn as international flights were cancelled, one by one, all over place. Finally after days of frenetic efforts he managed to secure a seat on what was literally the very last flight to McAllen on the evening of March 16. Edward went straight from the airport to the hospital, making the drive in less than 30 minutes. Things were still nonchalant there, and hospital staff let Edward in with barely a second thought. His arrival was a huge relief for Brittany. But, cruelly, a temporary one.
“That night, the tone of the hospital began to change. The nurses rushed in and told Edward he had to hide in the bathroom if he wanted to remain in the hospital with me overnight, despite earlier information we were given,” said Brittany. “I was so sick, and in such a substantial amount of pain, that I was terrified.”
Edward obliged, ducking quickly into the bathroom. Brittany urged him to get into the stand-up shower and pull the curtain across. He did, standing stock still and keeping as silent as possible. She turned out all the lights and pretended to be asleep. Security guards came by, propped open her door and, seeing nothing but a resting patient, moved on. Edward stayed in the dark shower a good 20 minutes more, to be sure the coast was clear.
“It started to feel militaristic and uncomfortable, and yet no information on why this was happening was relayed to us. To this day, I am very grateful to those nurses that evening. They gave us a few more hours together,” said Brittany.
Early the next morning Edward left to check on Calder, who had been staying with relatives ever since Brittany went to the hospital, and who hadn’t seen either parent for almost four days. A few hours later, a nurse burst into Brittany’s room, blurting out that security was now turning away all family and visitors to the hospital regardless of patient condition – palliative or otherwise.
“She helped me frantically phone my husband. Edward quickly rushed back to the hospital, where he was met with hostility by security. From what I understand, the situation for him and other desperate family members became tense and heated. No amount of desperation made a difference, and Edward quickly realized that he was not going to be with me,” said Brittany.
The understanding that she was alone, utterly and completely alone, that none of her loved ones, nobody at all, could be by her side slowly dawned on Brittany, filling her with a cold dread.
“(It) was terrifying. There is no other way to explain that. I felt like I was dying, was still not being treated with any kind of proper diagnosis or appropriate treatment or medical management,” she said. “The hospital was beautiful, but the medical staff were, for the most part, not knowledgeable.”
As a doctor, Edward’s medical perspective and his knowledge of Brittany’s health history would have been invaluable. He could have championed for the care Brittany needed. Instead, he couldn’t even be beside her to provide emotional and mental support. Outside, he could only try his best to stay up-to-date on her condition, and even that was difficult. Inside, Brittany’s situation grew more dire.
“I no longer had an advocate, and being so sick, I was in complete survival mode. It was quite primal actually,” she said.
Her focus became narrow. Just get through this hour, she told herself. Just this hour. When even that became too much, she began taking things minute by minute. Just get through the next 60 seconds. She watched the black hands on the old analog clock on the wall slowly creep around, or kept checking the time on her phone. Second by second. There was nothing else to take in but the bare white walls in her strangely cavernous room. It was large enough for a whole football team to sit down together in, but not a single decoration, not a touch of human warmth, broke up the endless white all around her. Even items such as Kleenex boxes had to be specifically requested — and then specifically scanned electronically, to be added to her bill.
“Time meant nothing. Much of it is now a blur as I rapidly deteriorated physically and mentally due to sepsis and as several other physical ailments took over,” she said.
Allowed a last goodbye
Finally, on March 19 hospital staff allowed Edward in, informing him that Brittany was about to go for surgery and would be brought to the intensive care unit after.
“It was as though they were allowing us to say our goodbyes. Those moments were surreal,” said Brittany. “They allowed him to remain in the hospital during my surgery, but provided no updates despite the surgery running exceptionally longer than expected. My husband obviously assumed the worst, and was already phoning his family for support as he awaited terrible news.”
But Brittany made it through the surgery. Minute by minute, hour by hour. Made it through yes, but the surgery came with complications and several very serious health issues occurred as a result. Edward was promptly ushered out of the hospital after the surgery. It would be the last he would see of Brittany until she could get well enough to leave. The COVID-19 lockdown had now sealed the hospital completely, and the automatic sliding doors at the hospital entry might as well have been the gates of Alcatraz.
The disorder and tumult the pandemic was causing across the U.S. outside the hospital was mirrored inside it. Safety protocols seemed to vary from staff member to staff member, with no centralized direction of any kind.
“The nursing staff did not contain their disgust at the lack of precautions the hospital was providing. Many nurses and care aids also worked at other facilities, and zero regulations for that were put in place. Some wore masks and gloves, and some barely sanitized,” said Brittany. “Everybody did something different upon entering my room, which was alarming for me given my high risk status, and since I had developed very critical lung issues during my hospitalization.”
Brittany was shuttled between rooms and an atmosphere of tension took hold as — bizarrely — some health care workers were dismissed from their jobs.
“Many staff were being forcibly laid off, and it visibly had an effect on the remaining staff. They became insanely overworked, which affected my care. Many confided in me, and I learned a lot about the lack of support they were being given. I was told the lay offs were a direct result of elective surgeries being cancelled during COVID-19, despite the hospital also wanting to prepare for a COVID outbreak. It seemed counterintuitive, but happened nevertheless,” she said. “I was moved several times to different floors and rooms, and units completely shut down. Those units were not being converted into potential COVID-19 units at that time, and they were going to sit empty. The fear amongst staff was obvious, and yet (centralized) safety protocols were not implemented.”
The patchwork of safety procedures was especially perplexing given the stringent policy of no family or visitors allowed in the hospital, no matter the state of the patient. And so, with the complications from the surgery, Brittany was back to being on her own and being unbelievably sick, subjected to invasive procedures without sedation, fighting to get proper care, and occasionally being ignored. Back to survival mode. Back to taking things moment to moment.
“My concentration had to be on self advocation, monitoring my own condition, and what medications they were administering. I ended up diagnosing several of my resulting conditions, and had to continually argue for proper care, sometimes without success,” she said. “I began to be filled with dread, and my resolve to survive became quite intense.”
Panic becomes ‘a real emotion’
FaceTime calls to Edward, as well as to her sister and her father, became a lifeline for Brittany, allowing her to see her family, to get medical opinions from Edward, and giving her a small break from her otherwise grim situation. Sometimes she made FaceTime calls just to see Edward and Calder’s faces, not talking much because there was nothing good to talk about. At one point, she was on FaceTime, watching her family play UNO in Dorothy’s Texas room from the vantage point of Edward’s propped-up phone. She tried to limit her FaceTiming with Calder, not wanting him to too often see his mother hooked into a breathing machine with an oxygen mask over her face.
“It was such a visceral pain as a mother to be forcefully separated from your child. A piece of my heart had left my body, and my focus turned to doing everything I could to retrieve it,” she said.
Pain wasn’t the only feeling on Brittany’s plate, and her emotions ran a daunting gamut from fear to periods of being completely emotionless. Toward the end of her stay in the hospital, as Brittany became more lucid, CNN News became her window to the outside world. The giant wall-mounted black box of a television in her room was both a blessing and a curse. Brittany finally had some reliable outside information about the pandemic. But what alarming information it was. With the global COVID-19 situation intensifying all the time, “panic became a real emotion,” she said.
Brittany, although still gravely ill, was able to get to a state of health in which flying back into Canada via medevac was now a possibility. Unfortunately it was a fraught possibly, one that had become increasingly political with the couple’s health insurance company and accepting Canadian hospital.
“According to the insurance company, I was a high risk patient that could be COVID-19 positive, and they wouldn’t organize or pay for transport on those grounds. They insisted that I must have a negative COVID-19 screening before boarding a plane. The problem was, Texas did not have COVID-19 testing available yet, and a test result was going to take three to four weeks after the initial swab,” said Brittany. “So I would be required to remain in hospital for an additional three to four weeks in isolation, or discharge myself against medical advice, and have five days to exit the country without health insurance covering me any further.”
There were no commercial flights back into Canada whatsoever, and even if there had been Brittany was unable to fly without a chest tube, since she had developed a pneumothorax.
With few options left, Edward took over, and single-handedly negotiated Brittany’s return by acquiring an accepting Canadian hospital and finding an accepting Canadian physician. The insurance company stood its ground, refusing to pay. Overwrought, distressed and exhausted from battling the insurance company, Edward withdrew a large sum of money and booked a private jet through a Calgary-based medevac company, with the hope of seeking reimbursement later.
A flying ‘coffin’ to Canada
Brittany finally rode out of the hospital on April 1 in an ambulance heading to a small airfield on the outskirts of town. She looked out the window as the ambulance rolled through the streets of McAllen. The city is an agglomeration of several smaller urban areas that grew together, creating a hodgepodge landscape of suburban mansions and gleaming strip mills interspersed amid fields of goats munching grass next to farming shacks. She was shocked, after nearly a month of enforced isolation, to see the city bustling and many people ignoring social distancing rules, despite the now clear warnings about the danger.
“Several areas of the United States were becoming debilitated by COVID-19, and yet McAllen, Texas appeared to be doing business as usual,” she said.
The airfield was more like a storage yard, and the jet was nothing fancy to look at: old and tiny. Certainly the smallest aircraft Brittany had ever seen. But it was a ticket back to Canada, and that was all that mattered. It was so small, in fact, that to get in, Brittany had to get off her stretcher and crawl in the hatch-like door on her hands and knees. In the plane, Brittany was back on a stretcher-like bed so narrow she had trouble staying on it. The bed was sucked up against the wall, medical equipment was stored under floorboards, and the medical crew’s personal belonging were stacked up everywhere around them.
“It was so tight, it really was like a coffin,” said Brittany. Space was at such a premium that when Brittany needed medical attention during the flight, the medical crew literally could not stand over her, so they had to swivel in their chairs to reach her and pile extra medical equipment on her legs while they worked.
In a touching moment of compassion, the crew snuck Edward and Calder onto the flight last minute, despite the close quarters, as “cargo weight.” Otherwise the two of them would have had to rent a car, drive from southern Texas all the way across the U.S. back to Canada during the height of the pandemic, and then head straight into quarantine without seeing Brittany. On the plane, Edward acted as a flight physician, while Calder was treated like royalty, getting fed from the ‘snack bar’ (a few bags of Oreo cookies and Doritos the crew had on hand) and watching iPad movies.
The medevac plane landed in Cranbrook. Edward and Calder went into home quarantine in Invermere, and Brittany was transferred to the Cranbrook hospital. The difference from the Texas hospital was night and day, not least in the full-scale COVID-19 measures in place in the Cranbrook hospital.
“I was in full isolation, and my nurse and physician would only enter my room in full personal protective equipment (PPE) gear. Googles, gowns, mask, hairnets, everything. I couldn’t tell anybody apart aside from their voices,” said Brittany.
Her room at the Cranbrook hospital was not new; ancient standup radiators from the 1960s, old linens, and the bed basically took up the whole room, but Brittany barely noticed because the care was exceptional. After just a week there Brittany had already been COVID-19 tested, and as soon as she saw a negative screen on the results, she asked to be discharged. Her medical team in Cranbrook wasn’t in full support, but eventually consented to her release because her husband was a physician.
“I realize that I should have stayed longer in their care, but my mental health was starting to decline to the point that I needed my family,” she said.
Finally, more than a month after heading out the door, off on vacation, Brittany arrived back home to the couple’s place in Juniper Heights. The homecoming, however, was anything but easy. Everything was familiar but strange at the same time. Something was off and she felt like an outsider in her own house.
“It isn’t how you would expect it to be. It felt unnerving, and I was very unsettled. I realized quickly how sick and in pain I still was without my IV medications, and how inaccessible our homes really are for those enduring medical issues. I felt like a tremendous burden to my family, who were also trying to navigate quarantine,” said Brittany, adding she was wracked with guilt and stress about her decision to leave the Cranbrook hospital, when she probably should have stayed.
Once Edward finished his post-Texas quarantine, he was back working full time at Chisel Peak Medical Clinic and the Invermere hospital. He and Brittany both agreed that his possible COVID-19 exposure at work was problematic, given Brittany’s high risk health state, so Edward moved out, housesitting for a fellow doctor who was away in northern Ontario, in an effort to protect his family.
With Brittany still quite weak, Dorothy came up from Texas, and, after her own quarantine, moved in to help. Walking from the bedroom to the living room couch “felt like a marathon,” said Brittany, and tasks such as reaching up to grab the waffle maker from the pantry shelf were impossible. Even opening the refrigerator door (the Schaffer’s fridge is new and, as a result, has pretty strong suction) was too much, and a few times Brittany had to ask Calder to open it for her.
Eventually, bit by bit, Brittany gained back her health and strength. And as the COVID-19 pandemic curve began to flatten in B.C., Edward was able to to move back home, although the couple is keeping a close eye on the COVID-19 situation, and consequently his exposure to the virus, as it continues to evolve.
Brittany feels lucky to have the loving family she does. The days alone with Calder passed with plenty of books, shark-themed nature documentaries, and snuggling on the couch. At one point Calder even brought over a blanket to cover his sleepy mom.
“Fortunately, and unfortunately, my son has experienced more than the average five year old in regards to dealing with parental health issues. He understood much more than I wish he had, but he also showed an immense amount of compassion and empathy. He has done exceptionally well through all of this, and has truly bloomed through this storm,” she said. “My time alone at home with my son has been a blessing. It has been beyond difficult, but immensely beautiful at the same time. My gratitude for my life, my friends, and this community, is overwhelming. So many people have brought us so much joy during all of this, and I am really soaking it all in.”
Although things are not yet completely back to normal, the Schaffers are doing just fine for now, and Brittany has a new perspective on life.
“Focus on something beautiful or something or someone that you value. Hold onto it, and fight for it. Find joy in the mundane, for that is life,” she said. “Too often we place value on things that don’t matter. Allow yourself to get uncomfortable. Embrace the anxiety that unfolds, because out of adversity and anxiety comes resilience and gratitude.”