As a mother awaits brain surgery alone, her son urges easing of hospital visitor restrictions

If Carl Freckelton could sit at his mother’s hospital bedside while she waits for brain surgery, he’d hold her hand and tell her he loves her.

But Freckelton and his three brothers have not been allowed to visit Joyce, 76, since she was first admitted to hospital three months ago following a couple of falls possibly linked to her brain cancer diagnosis. Freckelton’s father Bob has, 82, also not been allowed to see Joyce for six weeks — since before the third wave hit Ontario — the first time the couple has been apart in 56 years of marriage.

“I can’t imagine what my mother’s going through, being in hospital alone, waiting for this life-altering surgery to happen and not having anybody in her family to support her in person,” Freckelton told CBC News.

“My dad would do anything to be able to see her. If they told him he had to isolate afterwards, he’d do that, wear any type of PPE that they required,” he said.

“But those things haven’t been offered. It’s very frustrating for us.”

Joyce has been transferred to numerous hospitals since February, all with strict visitor restrictions aimed at controlling the spread of COVID-19. She is now at Toronto Western Hospital and has received her first vaccine dose. 

She is immobile and doesn’t have access to a phone, but the family has been able to occasionally check in on her using an iPad. Other times, however, they’ve waited a full day for staff to connect them with no success. 

The separation has devastated Bob, who only leaves the house for essentials and a 30-minute walk so he won’t miss a call from the hospital. The family has asked staff there if Bob (who’s also received one vaccine shot) can visit but so far the answer’s been no.

He was recently told he can possibly visit Joyce before or after her surgery, but no date for the procedure has been set. 

Before the third wave, Bob was approved as Joyce’s essential caregiver at another hospital and therefore allowed to see her about once a week for an hour at a time, Freckelton said. The family was told Bob’s visitor status would remain when she transferred to Toronto Western and doesn’t understand what’s changed despite their best efforts to navigate the system. 

Freckelton’s frustration and concern for his father has spurred him to call for hospitals to ease visitor restrictions. 

“Our family understands they need to have [restrictions] in place so that everyone’s safe, but I think that being able to see your family when you’re in a situation is very important for someone’s psyche and their mental well-being,” Freckelton said.

Restrictive visitor policies have been in place at hospitals across Ontario since the pandemic began, following guidance from the province to control COVID-19 outbreaks.

Restrictions are necessary, hospital says

“A major reason for the restrictions is that people can be infectious before they exhibit any symptoms and can carry the virus into the hospitals where the majority of people are very ill and many immune compromised,” said Gillian Howard, a spokesperson for the University Health Network, which includes Toronto Western Hospital. 

There’s an appeal process for people denied essential caregiver status, she said.

Freckleton said his family has not received this information or guidance.

“We certainly would have gone to any lengths to go through that process,” he said. “Part of the difficulty has been navigating the system and getting the right information so that we can have my father going for visits.”

UHN’s infection prevention medical director Dr. Susy Hota said the current policy allows for patients at end of life or with specific supportive needs to have some essential care visitors. And for the time being, these restrictions aren’t going to change. 

“Since we are still coming down from the worst wave of the pandemic since it started, we have not yet come to a point of opening up to a less restrictive stage of the guidance,” Hota said in a statement.

However, research suggests visiting caregivers aren’t major contributors to hospital-related transmission and restricting their access to loved ones could do more harm than good.

Hospitals follow direction from the Ministry of Health, which most recently gave guidance about visitor policies on June 15, 2020 and was supportive of easing restrictions. 

“I recommend that acute care settings begin the resumption of visitors,” wrote Dr. David Williams, Ontario’s chief medical officer of health, in a memo at the time. 

“Existing visitor policies regarding essential visitors should be revised accordingly to allow visits by family/caregivers and other types of visitors.”

Caregivers essential to patient recovery

Dr. Fahad Razak, an internist at St. Michael’s Hospital, said hospitals can do more to welcome and accept essential caregivers, who often become advocates for patients, communicating and building trust with health-care workers.

Dr. Fahad Razak is an internal medicine physician, scientist in the Li Ka Shing Knowledge Institute of St. Michael’s Hospital. (St. Michael’s Hospital )

“I think as a system we need to make the process as easy as possible and really acknowledge both the moral reasons for having someone there —  it’s the right thing to do — but it’s also good for the health of the patient,” said Razak, a member of Ontario’s science advisory board. 

Evidence shows patients recover faster from surgeries when they have an essential caregiver and it’s important to have that support through the tough times illness brings, he said.

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control recently released guidelines for fully vaccinated visitors, hinting at what could happen in Ontario hospitals in the coming months, Razak said. 

“It should be easier and the bar should be lower for you to come into hospital … it means your chance of transmitting the disease or getting COVID has gone down quite a bit,” he said.

“But you’ll still have to wear a mask and follow all the regulations.”

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