It was a Monday night in late April when Lisa Politakis got the call that her mother, a former resident at a Barrie, Ont., long-term care home, had tested positive for the novel coronavirus.
Politakis was playing cards with her husband and kids at home when the doctor told her that her mother, Joan Kantor, was asymptomatic with COVID-19 and that a number of other residents had also tested positive for the virus.
“You know when they say you get that gut feeling? I’ll tell you I broke down bad that night because I knew — something just told me,” Politakis said.
After Kantor’s family learned of her coronavirus diagnosis, an almost three-week battle ensued, which eventually led to Kantor passing away on the morning of May 16 at age 75.
Kantor was staying at Owen Hill Care Community, a long-term care home in Barrie, when she caught the virus. She was later moved to the Royal Victoria Regional Health Centre (RVH), where she lived out her final days.
Kantor’s family decided to transfer her to the hospital based on outside medical advice they received.
Now, Politakis and her family want answers on how the two-month-long COVID-19 outbreak happened at Owen Hill and how her mother became infected with the virus.
“Something, somebody, some process failed,” Politakis said. “I’m just trying to prevent anyone else from going through this. I’m trying to prevent this from happening again.”
Kantor’s family’s story is emblematic of what thousands of Canadians have gone through when their loved ones who were staying in long-term care homes died of COVID-19.
In Ontario, there have been 1,854 coronavirus resident deaths in long-term care facilities, which is about 65 per cent of the total number of coronavirus deaths in the province.
Owen Hill Care Community, a 57-bed long-term care home near downtown Barrie, saw 11 residents die from COVID-19 during its outbreak, which took place from April 24 to June 19.
The nursing home had 50 positive cases of the coronavirus in total — 27 among residents and 23 among staff.
Owen Hill is owned by Sienna Senior Living, the same company that owns a number of other long-term care and retirement homes throughout Ontario that have been affected by COVID-19 outbreaks.
Sienna Senior Living also owns Altamont Care Community, one of the five badly hit Ontario long-term care facilities that were named in a disturbing Canadian Armed Forces report, which alleged observations of improper care and neglect of residents.
Since the military report was released, Sienna has said it’s hired Ontario’s former deputy attorney general to conduct a company-wide review, ramped up its recruitment efforts to address staffing challenges, increased communication with residents and their families, and launched front-line re-education sessions for staff, among other things.
“All team members are undergoing a comprehensive learning program to help address the understandable challenges and stresses they have faced during a time of sector-wide uncertainty,” Swaraj Mann, a Sienna Senior Living spokesperson, said in an email to Global News Wednesday.
“We have also added clinical leadership to our shifts to support our team members and our local leadership teams are performing audits on shifts to ensure practices are conducted properly.”
Mann said Sienna is continuing to acquire personal protective equipment to make sure the company has a robust supply and that it’s engaged several health-care experts to provide advice.
“These steps help ensure we are prepared for a potential second wave of the pandemic,” Mann added.
Kantor was admitted to Owen Hill in August 2019 after she was diagnosed with dementia and also diabetes a few years prior.
“We realized that mum wasn’t going to the doctors’ appointments and mum wasn’t taking care of her diabetes,” Politakis said. “We tried to keep her home by having home visits, and me and my sister, who both live very close to her, would go in regularly and do all the shopping with her.”
Eventually, it came to the point where Politakis and her siblings’ help wasn’t enough — Kantor needed even more assistance.
“She couldn’t remember that she’d taken her pills that morning, couldn’t remember what she just had for breakfast,” Politakis said. “That was one of the reasons why we had to put her into the home because we needed someone to guide her.”
Kantor was born in Derby, England, in 1945. She later met her husband before the two settled down in Canada and started their family.
Kantor worked in the restaurant industry as a manager and waitress before she retired in her early 60s. She loved spending time with her family, playing cards and Scrabble, and the TV show Jeopardy!
“Everybody loved her,” Politakis recalls. “Everybody remembers her smile and her laugh.”
When Politakis got the call that her mother had tested positive for the novel coronavirus, she said the doctor also informed her that Kantor, who was on incontinence products, had developed a rash in her perineal area.
“The rash was so bad that they had to send pictures to a specialist to take a look at and my mom had to be on painkillers,” she said, adding her mother didn’t have a rash the last time she saw her before the onset of the coronavirus pandemic.
“She never, ever had anything, and I was always making sure she changed her product when she was there and that she had adequate supply.”
Before COVID-19 hit, Politakis and her two siblings visited Kantor a couple of times a week at Owen Hill. Politakis estimates that a family member was there at least every other day and that her sister was able to shower her mother at least once a week.
Living with dementia, Kantor put off showering — and other tasks — and needed coaxing from others to be able to do them. Even before the pandemic started, Politakis recalls, Owen Hill staffers had trouble getting Kantor to shower.
“It wasn’t because my mom was that difficult,” Politakis said. “It was just she would be like, ‘Oh, not today — I’ll do it tomorrow.’ With my mom’s dementia, that was her favourite line: ‘tomorrow…’
“We put up with it because we were there and we were on top of it.”
For confidentiality reasons, Mann said Sienna is unable to speak about individual residents but offers condolences to Kantor’s family, noting that if residents refuse care, which is their right under the Residents’ Bill of Rights, they would be approached again at a later time.
“If the refusal continues, other attempts at accommodation would be made, such as offering a bed bath to residents who refuse a bath or shower,” Mann added.
That first day Kantor tested positive for the novel coronavirus, Politakis said she was also told her mother was still in the same room as her roommate who hadn’t tested positive for COVID-19, although staff would be moving her.
“I don’t know what else happened for that woman,” Politakis said, adding that she was told that Owen Hill staff moved her mother to another room the next day before transferring her again when her breathing worsened.
During the COVID-19 outbreak, Mann said the home would cohort residents together who tested positive for the virus in order to prevent contact with others who tested negative.
“We can confirm that we were in compliance with all ministry and public health requirements prior to the outbreak,” Mann wrote. “We can also confirm that the past outbreak started after one team member tested positive.”
When the outbreak was declared at Owen Hill, Mann said the home “mobilized quickly” to make sure all outbreak protocols were in place.
“Our partners at the LHIN (Local Health Integration Network) and Royal Victoria assisted by deploying nurses at Owen Hill for testing team members and residents, as well as providing input on best practices for infection prevention and control,” Mann added.
“At all times, including since the start of the pandemic, Owen Hill maintained strong policies and procedures for the care of residents.”
Mann said Sienna is continuing to work closely with public health authorities and its health-care partners in Simcoe County to ensure all the necessary protocols and precautions are in place.
Before a possible second wave of COVID-19 hits, Politakis said the long-term care sector needs to figure out what went wrong and why there were so many outbreaks at nursing homes.
“How many more people have to die?” she said. “We’ve been blessed in this country that we’ve only lost less than 10,000 souls… Every time I see that number, I always see that last number as my mom.”
Now, Politakis said, she must fight for her mother to find out what happened at Owen Hill.
“They need to be held accountable because I put my mom in there to keep her safe,” she said. “They were supposed to keep her safe.”