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Horror and heartbreak in the wake of Whitby long-term care outbreak

Last Updated Jan 13, 2021 at 11:52 pm EDT

Ontario’s long-term care commission will hear from the families of residents who died when COVID-19 swept through a Whitby nursing home last month.

The families are scheduled to testify before the commission on Thursday. They have three things in common, grief, anger, and the fact they all lost loved ones during the outbreak at Sunnycrest Nursing Home, where 118 out of 119 residents came down with COVID, and 34 died.

Resident Bessie Marshall was an “amazing woman,” says her daughter Bev Kelly. Bessie was 100 years old, and Kelly says prior to the pandemic, she was doing well for her age.

A provincial investigation conducted as the outbreak raged found “widespread failures” caused “actual harm to residents.” Other findings: no one was screened upon entry, PPE was improperly used, residents weren’t being fed or given medication on time, their wounds untreated.

“It was like a war zone when I went in,” Kelly says after witnessing it first hand. “I could hear someone moaning, and I thought, ‘This is my mom.'”

“She was slumped in the bed,” she describes. “Her hearing aids were gone, there was a broken picture by her bedside. It was chaos. The smell of urine was sickening.”

Kelly says the woman who shared a room with her mom was also sick, as was the woman in the room next door.

“The woman was half falling out of bed, there was feces all over the floor,” she says. “I was horrified.”

“I stood there, I tried to straighten my mom out in the bed, she was pretty much unconscious,” she adds. She remembers thinking, “this is insane. Something is so wrong here. I tore out of there, I got out of my equipment and I sat in my car and I cried.”

Just a few hours later, the home called to tell Kelly her mother was failing, so she went back and stayed with her until she died.

“It was very, very traumatic and sad,” Kelly says. “And this didn’t have to happen.”

“We have to learn from this. If we do not learn from this, shame on us.”

The long-term-care investigator who discovered the disturbing conditions was in the home on November 28 and noted less than 50 per cent of staff were working because the others were too sick. It was another week before the Red Cross went in to assist.

Heather Locke, whose 90-year-old father Benjamin was a resident at Sunnycrest, says she doesn’t believe help was called in fast enough.

Premier Doug Ford said Wednesday that he has not asked the federal government to send the military into Ontario’s nursing homes. However, the Red Cross has been called in to 12 homes since the start of the pandemic, and is still working at six of them.

Looking back, the Sunnycrest families also say communication from the home was lacking.

“I actually found out from the funeral parlour she was COVID-positive,” says Richard Burtch, whose mother Mary Haynes lived at the home. “No one from Sunnycrest told me. I found out from the funeral director.”

CityNews reached out to Sunnycrest’s operators multiple times in recent weeks, asking for comment, and have yet to receive a response.

After watching a CityNews report on Sunnycrest in December, Whitby deputy mayor Steve Yamada put forward and passed a motion at city council, calling on the provincial government to launch an investigation into what went so wrong. Since then, he was contacted by Ontario’s long-term care commission.

“We should have been better-prepared going into second wave,” says Yamada. “It is our hope the commission hears us, the government hears us, and we are able to get answers.”

Ontario is hoping to administer first doses of vaccines to all long-term care residents by mid-February. Sunnycrests’s outbreak was declared over on January 3rd. The families want to make sure their losses are not forgotten, and not in vain.

“We have to learn from this,” says Peter Bereczki, son of resident Irma Bereczki, who died in the outbreak. “If we do not learn from this, shame on us.”