Merle, 50, from Chase Village in central Trinidad talks with Newsday's Rhianna McKenzie about her experience, having lost six family members to covid19.
Merle, 50, Chase Village
Interviewed on January 12, 2022
Mc Kenzie: How many family members have you lost to the pandemic?
Merle: Six family members
Mc Kenzie: Can you tell me about the first family member you lost and the circumstances surrounding that loss?
Merle: My cousin. She was 65. She had a heart condition from some years before. She was admitted to Mt Hope for chest pains, and they never mentioned anything about her being covid19 positive. They allowed one relative to visit. Just her daughter. One evening after visiting when she was on her way home, the hospital called her back and told her, “Your mom has taken the turn for the worst, and you need to come back immediately.” When she got there, she was told she was covid19 positive and that she had a cardiac arrest.
I don’t know what the protocol is at the hospitals for admitting patients because her relative’s home was also covid19 positive. Her husband was on medication home for covid19 and he eventually succumbed to it. He was about 70. Her daughter June was 48. She was admitted to Pt Fortin Hospital. We had no contact with anybody concerning the patient. No contact. She had her phone with her, and she was able to call home a couple days and all communication was void. Up to today, we have not received her belongings. Especially her phone. A phone contains everything in it. Memories, pictures in it.
My cousin died a week before my brother passed away. He passed away on Dec 11. On the day of (my cousin’s) funeral which was December 16. The same time as the funeral we got a call from the hospital saying (her daughter) had died. On December 17, in the morning, her husband passed away.
Mc Kenzie: What about your immediate family. Tell me about your brother.
Merle: His symptoms started to show up around November 29. He’s Diabetic so we just thought he wasn’t feeling well because of that. On Tuesday he felt a little worse and the Wednesday, everybody in the house tested. My brother, sister-in-law, niece, her husband, and the two kids and they were all positive.
On Wednesday we got a doctor who normally does home visits and we started him on IV and stuff and by the Sunday December 5, we couldn’t handle the situation at home anymore so we made the call to send him home to the hospital but he was still walking around. They came Sunday night into Monday morning around 7.30 am they got the call and left with him and he was taken to San Fernando, the new hospital, the tent hospital. By Wednesday he was transferred to Augustas Long.
He had his phone with him and we spoke to him. He was given oxygen and everything, By Thursday night we finally got an update from a doctor at Augustas Long. He said my brother needed an ICU bed and there were none available in the country at the moment. He said, “Your brother will die if he doesn’t get an ICU bed and there is none available at the moment.” Those were his exact words. He said he would update us in the morning. There wasn’t an update on the Friday and Saturday morning around mid-morning around 11 that’s when we got the call that he passed away.
Mc Kenzie: Obviously, this has all been overwhelming. How is your state of mind going through all of this?
Merle: I was not in a good space at all. At that time my niece, with the news of her dad’s death, she was breathing (weird). We sent her to the hospital the very next day. She was taken to San Fernando and by the evening she was taken to the Couva facility for covid19 patients. Her pulse rate was low for a couple days and that had us scared. Her kids, mother, husband got much better. She was there and she recovered and she was discharged with follow-up care for cardiology review. She was submitted on Dec 12 and discharged on 20.
Mc Kenzie: With so many family members passing through the parallel healthcare system, how do you feel about it? Do you think it is sustainable?
Merle: No, it’s not. A lot of things came to my mind when I was going through it. I wasn’t able to get my thoughts together to document anything. I am also a health worker.
You have people going into the system and their relatives don’t know where they are. I have one case where a friend’s uncle went into the system, he was diabetic, put on a chair for days.
The meals for diabetics need to be on point. You have a patient suffering from covid19, is malnourished because nether other needs are not being taken care of. Whereas at home your family will feed you and make sure you take your medication on time. Most of the stories you hear coming out of the system are that a lot of people are not getting meals on time, not getting medication on time. They are just running oxygen and time is stretched seeing about all those patients at the same time. Who is monitoring the oxygen levels for all these patients when you have one nurse coming in?
Before RHA, we had registered nurses, we had nursing assistants, and we had nursing aids. We also, after a while, hired patient care assistants. These are people making sure the patient eats on time, help clean them up. I am sure the system still has all these people employed. I know they are stretched thin but in the height of a pandemic, we are going on two years, I know there are people who are willing to go in and help. After the whole incident with my family, I was the one taking care of them, feeding them, giving them medication.
All I wore was a surgical mask and I had no symptoms. I was in there for a week plus taking care of them. I am sure there are people who have covid19 already, building up immunity, who are willing to help. I am sure there are retired nurses, who are qualified and did their training and are unemployed.
The government needs to reach out to make sure we don’t see those figures every day. I don’t’ mind seeing 1,500 cases but I don’t want to see 20-30 deaths. We are too small of a country to have those kinds of figures rolling out every day.
Panama has a population of 5 plus million people and their death rate for the day is 7-10. We are doing something wrong when our relatives leave home and go into the system.
Mc Kenzie: Were your relatives fully vaccinated?
Merle: My brother fully vaxxed with Sinopharm but my cousin was not vaccinated yet because of the complications with her heart but her daughter was vaccinated. Her husband was not vaccinated. My other cousin’s some who died. He was 38-years-old, he was vaccinated
Mc Kenzie: What about the funerals? How was that experience for you? I know there are certain limitations now.
Merle: I encountered some issues. They were all quarantined so I had to go get stuff done for my brother. One of the first things you do is call up the funeral home and go to the hospital. They tell you to come with an ID card and so forth and collect the death certificate from the hospital. One thing they didn’t remember to tell me is if the person is being cremated you have to walk with your own cremation form because they don’t have any. When I went on the Saturday I had to come back home because I didn’t have the form with me. I work hospital I know the drill but I assumed they had the form but they didn’t. Boodoo’s Funeral Home in Cunupia.
I went back the next day with everything and the funeral home went to collect the body. They registered the death at San Fernando because the body was sent to the morgue there. After that, we weren’t able to get a date until the 21st. Hindu tradition is cremation and everything was booked.
I think people should know this. You’re acting on behalf of a relative, when I went to get the cremation permit because we don’t have the same surname I had to get an affidavit done to collect the permit. When I asked why they said because anybody could come and collect a permit. It was amazing to know what was happening out there.
Mc Kenzie: How was the cost of cremation for you and your family?
Merle: I asked the funeral home and they said there’s a basic one for $7,500 which is the amount you get from NIS. Anything else is additional money. For cremation, the cost can start from like $13,500. We took a glass box so it was additional. It came up to about $17,500.
It is exorbitant. My cousins buried to cut that cost. But there are people who would want a cremation for religious reasons and they are now burdened by that. Not everyone will get that NIS grant so there are families who have to foot that entire bill. Sometimes you have to ask what is the reason for that cost. It’s really hard on people. Even if those people who don’t get NIS get a grant, it’s basically just to dispose of the body, You can’t do a cremation if you don’t have that extra money.
Mc Kenzie: How has this experience shaped your view of the pandemic as opposed to when it first started?
Merle: I have been following the pandemic since December 2019. One of the things that caught my attention the most was the cruises. I did not expect it to hit our country like this. I think locking down the borders was unnecessary. I think they could have given people enough time to come home because we did not have community spread at the time.
Trinidadians on the whole harden. We could prevent a lot of the cases from happening. The onus is not only on the government. The onus is your personal responsibility. I was fortunate to work from home most of the time. My brother got it from handling money. He didn’t have a choice. He was a doubles vendor.
From my knowledge of vaccines, it stops transmission, which the vaccines are not doing. I know they are going to say be patient. I am not anti-tax. at the point in time, I did not have any intention of getting the vaccine but I did some reading on it and I took it and made sure everyone else got the vaccine.
So that’s why when my brother was leaving in the ambulance, at the back of my mind I thought that he had a chance because he was vaccinated. So right now I am upset and I am questioning everything now. You follow the science, but that didn’t happen for my family. So I am upset. But I know some things can’t be helped. But I am very hesitant to get a booster at this point in time.
I know from reading the pandemic will last maybe another year before it settles down. A lot of stories you read it’s the young er person in the house went out. Going to bars and lime in restaurants and taking off their masks and going back home and their asymptomatic or vaccinated and they are taking it to somebody is older or vulnerable. There are a lot of people who are hypertensive or diabetic and don't even know that they are because they don't do medical checkups.
Before the pandemic, there would be health caravans before. These are some of the things I want to see pushed. How are we going to get healthier citizens? We could try to educate them and get them in a nice way to get them there. Don’t come to the health press conference and talk nonsense, please. You’re not encouraging people when you do that. You have to be charismatic. You have to say we want you to be a healthy nation. Health is wealth. Push something that is positive. Don’t come always blaming citizens and bashing them. They will not listen to you they will not want to obey and follow you.
Why is Mia Mottley in front of everything? Because she was dealing with his whole thing differently. We are not stepping forward we are stepping backward when they do those foolish things.
We are a very unhealthy country and I strongly believe that the Ministry of Education needs to put more physical education classes in (schools). We need to push children from a young age to eat healthily and be healthy. We still have a year or more of this pandemic. People need to do the right things for themselves.
Run programmes to keep the nation healthy. Exercise, have diet programmes teaching people how to prepare meals with less fat, sugar. You need to keep pushing it all the time. You want it to be a habitual part of their life. In the end, it will be a less burden on the healthcare system.