How COVID-19 entered our world and broke our hearts
I come from a very close family, scattered around Australia and Canada but close nonetheless. We are an active family, into skiing, sailing, riding horses and other such pursuits. And we are travellers. In part because we live scattered across two countries but also due to all the many great adventures to be had and our very strong sense of FOMO (fear of missing out).
Much of this stems from our father. Dad didn’t think twice about lifting his tiny girls atop towering horses with a ‘hold on, she’ll stop at the fence’ or of piling us onto his sailing boat and heading across the open waters of Bass Strait to Deal Island. We went on Bunyip hunts at night, searching for that elusive, mythical creature and he both thrilled and terrified us with tales of man-eating tigers as bedtime stories.
It was Dad leading the charge on grand adventures, hosting epic parties and living life to the full. When he turned 80 last year, we all gathered on Hamilton Island for a five-day party. The days were magical – filled with fun activities … sailing, snorkeling, lazing by the pool … and each evening, we had a feast cooked up by Graeme. It was a most fitting 80th birthday celebration.
Then Dad, Sean and I sailed Popeye down the coast to Brisbane. We sailed the 600 nautical miles straight through taking 70 hours with Dad at the helm, wind in his face, grinning the whole way. He’d always wanted to ski in Aspen, Colorado. So in February, he and Gabby winged off to the US for a three-week ski trip. COVID-19 was just a murmur out of China. Planes were still flying, travel warnings had not been issued and the terms ‘self-isolation’ and 'social distancing' were yet to enter our vernacular.
I receive a call from Dad and Gabby saying they are cutting their trip short. COVID-19 had started to spread its ugly tentacles across the globe and they want to be home. They purchase new flights due to an uncooperative airline and arrive home to a voluntary 14-day self-isolation period. Dad develops a cold. Two days later, he is rushed to hospital by ambulance and his test for COVID-19 comes back as positive.
He is in isolation, no visitors allowed, not even Gabby. I chat with him on the phone. He is in good spirits although feeling quite ill, but looking forward to getting out of hospital and going home. Things take a turn for the worse. He is transferred to intensive care, sedated into a coma and placed on a ventilator - absolutely no visitors allowed. By now travel bans are in place. I am in Canada, Wendy is in Queensland, Susan, a five-hour drive away in rural Victoria, Gabby self-isolating alone in Flinders and Dad in intensive care in Frankston. The chest-tightening worry, the feeling of complete helplessness, the endless ‘what-ifs’. And none of us can be there, not even to hold his hand and tell him we love him. With an update on his condition only once every 24 hours, these are very long days.
Some good news: Gabby tests negative. But still she cannot visit. They cannot risk her bringing anything into the hospital or intensive care or waste precious gowns and masks on visitors. We hold out each day for the daily update - about 1:00 am here in Canmore. It’s bad news, they’ve had to crank up the ventilator; it’s good news, his oxygen levels have improved. It’s a roller coaster of emotion. I start to dread the phone ringing but desperate for the call that brings a glimmer of hope. I lie in bed at night, sleepless and anxious. I wake unrested in the morning and watch the clock – 4:00 am in Melbourne … don’t people often die in the hours just before dawn?
It’s 5:30 am in Queensland. Wendy rings. I stop breathing. He’s stable, but no improvement. Stable is good, isn’t it? Every morning for four days, the call is the same. No better, but most importantly, no worse. Day 8 on the ventilator. Is this good or bad? What is the normal pattern for COVID-19? Do they even know?
And so we wait. With our stomachs clenched and the tears constantly welling in our eyes. Desperate for the phone to ring, dreading it when it does. We are exhausted. And we are unable to be together. Borders have closed, travel is restricted and ‘stay at home’ regulations are in force. We ring each other, we tell funny stories about Dad, we cry and we shake our heads in disbelief. Dad, of all people. He is so fit and healthy, he may be 80 but he’s not a normal 80 year old. He still skis and sails and rides bikes and hikes up mountains. And just look at the statistics, most people don’t die from this and those that do, have underlying health issues. Dad doesn’t – he is as healthy as an ox.
The medical staff are superb. Despite Dad’s age, he is getting the very finest care that a first-world medical system can provide. Unfortunately, for COVID-19 patients, the available arsenal is limited. There is no treatment. There is no miracle drug. They roll him. They try everything but in the end all they can do is provide him with support with a ventilator helping him breathe, and hope his body can combat the virus. And all we can do is hope. And wait.
It is nearly midnight in Canmore when the phone rings. It’s Gabby - and what she tells me breaks my heart.