TORONTO -- Should patients who are critically ill with COVID-19 be allowed visitors? Hospitals across the country are grappling with the question, and the family of one of the latest victims of this disease is begging for a national policy.

Bernice Fiala, who recently celebrated her 80th birthday by fulfilling a dream to ride a motorcycle, was the first person in her southwestern Ontario community to be hooked up to a ventilator with COVID-19.  She was admitted to Chatham Kent Health Alliance on March 16. Her daughter Joanne King, a nurse, was allowed to visit her daily in the hospital, until the rules changed last Monday, barring all visitors. After repeated requests to the hospital administration and the Patient Advocacy Office, the family was finally told one family member could be by Bernice’s side when death was “imminent.”

For days, Joanne King held a vigil in the hospital parking lot, waiting for the call. And when her phone rang early on the morning of April 3, with the news that her mother was in decline, Joanne donned personal protection equipment and rushed to the hospital’s new COVID wing.

Through tears, Joanne relays her mother’s final moments: “I hugged her. I kissed her. I said I was there for her. I said we were all there for her. I just stayed by her side, held her hand, rubbed her hair. Made sure her music was playing, and then set up everybody so they could be there with her.”

Like some hospitals across the country, Chatham Kent Health Alliance has set up iPads in the rooms, so family can “virtually” be at their loved one’s bedside.  WIth her three siblings spending her final hours via iPad, Joanne continuously monitored her mother’s vital signs.  

“I checked her pulse. It’s like oh, it’s 60. On no. It’s 58. The four of us were able to be with mom in her last seconds. It was peaceful. There was just a sigh. And then she was gone ”

Bernice Fiala died on what would have been her 61st wedding anniversary.  Her daughter Joanne says her mother, widowed at the age of 43, and father had made a pact. “They promised they would be their one and only. It was time for her to be with him. So we said, mum you are up there dancing with dad. You have flowers that are blooming and fresh coffee, and you’ve got dad.”

Bernice’s family is concerned about others who will, no doubt, be navigating the unpredictable new world of saying goodbye in these COVID-19 times.  They are thankful to the tireless staff at the hospital, but say there needs to be a uniform policy across the board, so families aren’t spending a loved one’s final days pleading for visitation.

In Ontario there are no detailed guidelines, just that visitation may only happen when death is imminent. In Nova Scotia, by comparison, every hospital has been directed that one visitor is allowed when it is “clear that death is approaching,” and a second person can be admitted into the room when the patient is “actively dying.”

“I am fearful this is going to happen to quite a few people out there. They need to prepare themselves and advocate for their loved ones.  You have to be strong and really advocate for your wishes,” Joanne said.