Woman recounts what it was like to see a family member die of COVID-19 in an Alberta hospital

An Alberta family is sharing its tale of devastating loss in hopes it will inform others of how dangerous COVID-19 is.

Andrew Birchill was taken to hospital at the end of October with four broken ribs after falling in his care home — and never came home again.

His daughter-in-law, Lori Birchill, was his one designated visitor. The two would talk the halls of his unit together to help maintain his strength.

“That was the first thing Andy wanted to do, was put his mask on, to stay protected,” Lori recalled.

READ MORE: ‘It isn’t a hoax’: Alberta family grieves as father lies dying of COVID-19 in B.C. hospital

Andy, as he was known, kept working on his rehab. But with his mobility still hindered, he stayed in hospital longer than expected.

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More than a week after he was admitted to the Grey Nuns Hospital in Edmonton, Lori was walking in to visit him when she got a phone call from his nurse.

“She said, ‘You have to leave the hospital. Andy is COVID positive,’” Lori explained.

“I fell apart.”

Lori said Andy was one of the first patients involved in an outbreak at the hospital.

“I always saw the nurses wear masks. They wash their hands — there was nobody that broke protocol. So in my mind it’s like, ‘How did this happen?’”

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Family wasn’t allowed to visit due to COVID-19 precautions in hospitals. “Absolutely no visitors. So right there, you’re cut off,” Lori said.

She said she appreciated Andy’s doctor, who called her every day with an update. But the Birchills felt helpless at home.

“You sit on pins and needles all the time. In your mind — ‘how is he?’” Lori said.

READ MORE: 40-year-old Edmonton man documents his heartbreaking decline before COVID-19 took his life 

Andy’s health quickly deteriorated as the virus attacked his lungs.

“It was a week later and the doctor phoned again and he said he is really working hard to breathe and his body might just wear out trying to breathe,” Lori said.

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As part of compassionate care, Andy’s three adult children and his wife of 66 years were allowed to come in for a brief goodbye.

“Try and say goodbye in a facemask, a shield, a gown and gloves,” Lori said.

“You’re crying and you’re told not to touch your face. And there’s your dad, your husband, laying there, struggling to breathe.”

At that point, Andy couldn’t breathe, but acknowledged their presence by lifting his hand. Andy died on Nov. 16 — gutting his 88-year-old wife, Wilma.

“His wife is crushed,” Lori said. “She is broken-hearted. She lost her best friend.”

Andy Birchill died of COVID-19 after going to the hospital for broken ribs in October.
Andy Birchill died of COVID-19 after going to the hospital for broken ribs in October. Courtesy: Birchill Family

In addition to his three children, Andy had five grandchildren.

“There were days that you were just numb,” Lori said. “And there’s no closure. There’s no closure for me or the grandkids or my brother-in-law that didn’t get to see him. There was no funeral.”

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Lori said the lack of a normal goodbye will haunt the family forever.

“It was heartbreaking. Andy loved his family and his family loved him,” she said.

Despite the lack of a service, condolences poured in from all the different places Andy and Wilma lived over the years.

“He was an intelligent man. He had his masters in education. He was a teacher. He was a superintendent,” Lori said, noting he’d taught in Red Deer, Stettler and Wainwright.

When he wasn’t teaching, Andy was farming or taking up new hobbies, including computer lessons so he could Facetime his family.

“He loved his garden, he loved farming. He taught himself to play the fiddle when he was 70,” Lori said.

READ MORE: Alberta nurse practitioner describes ICU during pandemic: ‘We’re feeling a bit defeated’

The Birchill family wants others to understand the realities of the situation Alberta is in when it comes to COVID-19.

“It’s devastating,” Lori said. “It’s killing people. The hospitals are overloaded. So whether you believe it or not, it’s real.”

© 2020 Global News, a division of Corus Entertainment Inc.

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