“On March 9, 2020, my dad received a full bill of health from his doctor. On March 10, my mom’s birthday, he first started feeling slightly unwell, but he was still able to enjoy a nice family meal to celebrate. By March 11, he was starting to feel rough. He put himself to bed and for nearly 2 weeks, he didn’t leave except for a precautionary visit to the GP where they ruled out COVID-19 and told him it was probably a bad virus that would pass in a week or two, and to ‘go home and rest.’
A few days later, when Dad had shown little sign of improvement, Mom called the doctor again. ‘Keep him hydrated. Buy him some Dioralyte. Rest some more.’
It was March 23– the day the UK went into its first national lockdown. Mom called the UK non-emergency NHS number as Dad was starting to show signs of breathlessness and on their advice, called 999. The paramedics turned up and deemed Dad’s oxygen levels ‘critically low’ and said he needed to go to the hospital immediately. All Mom and Dad could do was wave goodbye to each other – him from the ambulance bed, Mom from the front door. No kiss. No hug. Barely any words. And that was the last time she would ever see him conscious, after over 40 years together.
I got the phone call while I was at work. He was ‘okay’ – talking and responding well to oxygen. Positive news. When I was at home that evening, I got the second phone call that turned everything 180 degrees. Dad had a minor heart attack and was now in an induced coma on a ventilator. The prognosis wasn’t good, and we had been told to ‘prepare for the worst.’
Cue 3 unbearable weeks of isolation where we had no way of finding out how Dad was, other than phone calls to the hospital. It took us a few days to even have it confirmed to us it was COVID-19 he had been diagnosed with.
Every time I called the hospital, my heart rate would go through the roof, and I would try to remind myself to breathe properly and keep calm as I absorbed the facts of Dad’s ever-changing condition. I’d scribble it all down so I wouldn’t forget as soon as I hung up the phone… the nurse’s name, Dad’s oxygen intake level, oxygen saturation level, sedation level, his temperature, his kidney function, his blood pressure. I always made sure to thank the nurse and team for everything they were doing, before hanging up and reminding myself the most important thing was Dad was still alive, and still fighting.
Up. Down. Stable. Down. Up. Stable.
One week in, things were looking more positive. The doctor was positively surprised. He’d come leaps and bounds from where he’d started, and though we must still remain realistic, it was positive.
2 weeks in, Dad had to have a tracheotomy. ‘Standard procedure when you’ve been ventilated for that long,’ we were told. It would hopefully help more in weaning him off the oxygen support. The procedure went well, and Dad seemed to have responded positively. His sedation was stopped, and his temperature had gone. ‘Now surely, all we have to do is be a bit more patient before he improves,’ I thought to myself naively.
Saturday, April 11, the doctor rang. Dad’s condition was starting to deteriorate again. They would keep on supporting him and doing everything they had been, but he wasn’t showing any more signs of waking up, despite no longer being heavily sedated. His fever had also come back. I cried a lot that night.
By April 12, my brother was calling the hospital in the mornings, and I was doing the evening calls. We’d been struggling more and more to get through to the ICU ward, sometimes having to call for over an hour before finally getting an answer, a sign of how much busier they were getting since Dad had first been admitted. My brother called and called and called. He gave it a break, then tried some more. No luck. My turn. 8 a.m. turned to 10 a.m., 12 p.m. turned to 2 p.m. Still no answer. ‘They’re just really, really busy. It’s okay. If there was anything really wrong, they’d call us. They’re just busy.’
And then it happened. The phone rang. I ran so fast to answer it before Mom, not wanting her to have to take that phone call. I slipped on the floor and the bowl of olives I had been holding went flying. I jumped up and grabbed the phone. Mom and my partner came rushing in to see if I was okay. I wasn’t. ‘Breathe, Helen. Stay calm. Listen to what the doctor’s saying. Breathe.’
‘I’m very sorry to say there’s nothing more we can do.’
I will be eternally grateful to the hospital for allowing my mom, brother, and I to be at my dad’s bedside for his final moments. They were only supposed to allow one of us in – we were at the height of COVID-19 restrictions – but I begged the doctor to be allowed in too. When my brother turned up unannounced at the hospital after having raced down in his car from over 90 miles away, they let him in too.
In the PPE, we looked like something out of a fantasy space movie. A hat, gown, apron, shoe covers, a face mask, visor, and two pairs of gloves. The visor hurt within minutes, my head was pounding, and I immediately started dripping with sweat. As we were about to enter the ICU, I remember so clearly the nurse saying, ‘It’s not nice in there, so once we’re inside just make sure you look straight ahead and focus on following me. And do your best not to cry, as you won’t be able to wipe your tears.’
Dad was in a private room at the end of the ICU ward. There was an open doorway surrounded by plastic curtains, like we were going into some strange, cordoned off VIP area.
BAM. I thought I was going to faint from the shock. My wonderful, handsome, strong, incredible Pops was lying on the bed in front of me, his head tilted uncomfortably back and to the right. His mouth was stuck wide open, so much so you could see it filled with ulcers, and his throat was gargling with every pump of the ventilator. His lips were covered in bloody, sore looking scabs. He was so swollen all over his eyes were bulging to the point his beautiful, blue eyes couldn’t stay fully closed. His skin was taut and yellow, his fingernails were long. His hand I’d held so many times before felt rock solid. His eyes. His mouth. My poor, poor, darling dad.
‘We’re here now, Pops,’ I managed to blurt out. His head jerked and there was a loud gargling noise, almost like a groan. ‘What’s happening, is he okay?!’ I said to the nurse.
‘He’s okay, he can just hear you.’
He knows we’re there. Speak to him. Tell him not to be scared. Tell him how much you love him. Tell him how much he is loved by everyone! Oh my god. My brave, fantastic father. We’re here with you now.
And then we saw them. The tears. Not from Mom, not from myself. From Dad. His poor, swollen, half-open eyes had tears rolling out of them and down his face. His head was tilted to the side so much that a pool of them gathered on the bridge of his nose, while the rest fell down his cheek. We’d been told to try and not touch his face, but at the point, nothing else mattered. I wiped them away as best I could with a hand, wearing two pairs of nitrile gloves. ‘It’s okay, Pops. We’re here with you now. It’s okay, don’t be scared. We love you SO much!’
Machine alarms kept going off, numbers started dropping, and nurses kept popping their heads in intermittently to silence them before leaving us to have some privacy again.
When it happened, I knew. I didn’t say anything to my mom or brother. We all just carried on, holding his hands, and stroking his arm. His arm felt more ‘real’ than his hand, at least. His poor, swollen, rigid hand. Minutes later, we had to let go. The doctor had to do his final checks. ‘Still time for a miracle to happen?’ I saw the doctor nod his head so subtly, it would have been easy to miss.
No more miracles. He’s gone. My dad was dead. I’m never going to hear him speak ever again. How can you decide when to leave a room where your loved one has died beside you, knowing once you make that decision, you will never, ever see them again?
In our case, the restrictive, claustrophobia-inducing PPE made our decision to leave Dad’s side slightly quicker. Not easier, by any means. But we still hadn’t been able to wipe our tears or blow our noses. It was time to leave. Yet nothing is so simple with COVID-19. Even leaving is made harder. As much as you have to protect yourself coming into the ICU ward, you have to protect yourself going out. More hand washing. More taking off PPE in a very specific way. Trying to follow the doctor’s instructions in doing it safely, all while trying to ignore the fact my dad was still lying dead a few feet behind me.
‘Thank you so much,’ is all I could summon. ‘Thank you. Goodbye. Thank you.’ Like we were thanking someone for having us over for dinner.
We made it to our cars. My partner was still waiting. ‘What’s the time?’ I asked him. We’d been in there for 3 hours. It had felt like half an hour, perhaps an hour tops. I couldn’t believe it. I sat in the passenger seat of my car in silence. Breathe.
The sun was shining on my face. I took my phone out, took a deep breath, and took a couple of photographs of myself. Taking photos of everything has always been something I am renowned for. Photos are memories. I can’t explain why, in the moment, it was one of the first things I felt to do, but maybe because the whole experience was so surreal, having a photographic memory of that moment would be proof to me it did happen. It was real, and the pain was real. The pain IS real.
It may sound stereotypical, but my dad really was my best friend. He made me laugh constantly! Losing anyone you love is difficult but losing someone to a new virus at the height of a national lockdown made things feel even harder. Unable to hold a proper funeral for him or even hug my friends and family when I needed them most felt so cruel. I found myself feeling isolated in my pain.
Writing turned out to be an escape for me, so I decided to start an Instagram page to document my grief journey and hoped to connect with others along the way. The online grief ‘community’ is like therapy for me. The comfort and support I have received have been phenomenal and it has helped me adjust to my ‘new normal’ more than I could have ever expected. The definite silver lining to all of this has been the fact I have been able to raise so much awareness about the reality of losing someone to COVID-19, and through that, helped others experiencing something similar, realize they are not alone. Bringing comfort to just one other person who may be feeling like I did means my dad’s death wasn’t in vain. I hope anyone else who may be grieving in these unprecedented times knows there is always someone out there who understands how they feel, and they are never alone.”
This story was submitted to Love What Matters by Helen Jade Smith from London, UK. You can follow her journey on Instagram. Submit your own story here and be sure to subscribe to our free email newsletter for our best stories, and YouTube for our best videos.
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