Though covid isn’t listed as his cause of death, there’s no question in our minds that it cut his life short.
Five months ago my engaged, active father fell and broke his hip near his home in South Carolina. Months later, doctors determined that the surgery he’d undergone had failed, and his weeks doing physical therapy in an inpatient rehab facility — spent largely in quarantine because of covid outbreaks — had been for naught.
In August we scheduled a second surgery at a regional medical center in Athens, Ga. Within days, because of delta-variant surges among the unvaccinated, hospitals all over Georgia began halting “nonessential” procedures. His surgery was canceled.
My father and his companion, Jane, decided to join our extended family in Maine for the summer. Though he was in constant pain and in a wheelchair, he presided over family dinners and played board games with his grandchildren. He and Jane had Scrabble wars, read dozens of books and basked in the sunshine and salty air.
We found a Maine surgeon to do the partial hip replacement, but Dad was worried about the risks. The surgeon assured us that the operation was routine; his vital signs were normal and his heart rate was strong. Within 24 to 48 hours, he told us, Dad would move to a nearby rehab facility.
Indeed, the operation was a success. Within a day, Dad was standing and ready for rehab. But the days stretched on. All the rehab beds in the area, we were told, were filled, mostly by unvaccinated covid patients.
Finally, a spot opened in a facility 90 minutes away, where 20 percent of the patients had active covid. As a patient there, Dad would immediately, and indefinitely, be quarantined. But even that less-than-desirable option was not to be: He had contracted MRSA, a virulent infection commonly transmitted in hospitals. In other words, he became infected in the hospital by a hospital-borne disease. Soon he was battling multiple infections, and rehab became a distant dream.
Incredibly, just over a week ago, we learned that his unvaccinated nurse had been diagnosed with covid. Dad entered quarantine again. He spiked a fever, tested positive for covid and spiraled toward death.
The medical center where my father died, such as many American hospitals, does not currently require its staff to be vaccinated and only tests them if they exhibit symptoms. Meanwhile, for patients’ family members, policies are stringent. You wait in a line of people outside the hospital, rain or shine. At the front desk your temperature is taken, and you’re asked a series of pointed questions about your exposure to covid. Only one family member a day is allowed, fully masked, at the patient’s bedside.
Why? Because, as one nurse admitted to me, the hospitals are afraid of unvaccinated staff getting infected.
One in three health-care workers at the 50 largest hospitals in the country remain unvaccinated, according to an analysis of data collected by the Department of Health and Human Services. In Maine, it is estimated that 20 percent of hospital workers are unvaccinated. Gov. Janet Mills (D) has instituted a vaccination requirement for health-care workers beginning Friday, but the state will not begin enforcement until Oct. 29. The governor’s office said in an announcement that more than half of Maine’s “open covid-19 outbreaks are occurring in health-care facilities, forcing infected health-care personnel to isolate or quarantine and driving staff shortages.”
Shortages, I believe, cost my father months and perhaps years of his life. By placing the rights of unvaccinated staff, patients and visitors above those of vaccinated patients and their families, hospitals are increasing pain and suffering — and are failing to protect vulnerable people from covid-related isolation, illness and death.
In the Maine hospital where my father died, as in many around the country, doctors and nurses are urgently needed to care for critically ill, largely unvaccinated, delta patients. As a result, Dad had a revolving cast of care providers over the past three weeks.
Last week, as his condition declined, we were assigned a palliative care doctor who was seeing him for the first time. When I expressed my anger and grief about my father’s situation, the doctor said: “I looked at his chart, and your father should be in rehab right now. There’s no reason in the world for this to have happened.”