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The mid-1980s found me at the Manhattan home of Dr. Michael Baden. I listened mesmerized as the renowned medical examiner discussed, with visible emotion, his findings as chairman of the US congressional forensic pathology panels that had investigated the assassinations of President John F. Kennedy and civil rights leader Martin Luther King, Jr.
I was also moved by Dr. Baden’s contributions as the pathologist who, in 1991, exhumed and re-examined the remains of Medgar Evers — an official with the National Association of Colored People who’d been gunned down at his Mississippi home, in 1963. As Baden recounts in the documentary, Confessions of a Medical Examiner, the work enabled him to acquaint Evers’s youngest child, age three when his father was murdered, with a man he scarcely remembered.
“I received the sealed casket and when I opened it, the body was in perfect condition,” Baden explains. “I had told the son that I’d call him after the autopsy.” Instead, Baden arranged the room “as if it were a funeral parlour” and invited Evers’s son (then in his thirties) to view the near pristine remains of his dad. “There were tears in my eyes and tears in the eyes of others who were in the autopsy room,” Baden says.
I was reminded of Dr. Baden when last week Dr. Robert Strang, the chief medical officer of health in Nova Scotia, shared his feelings about the rising number of COV19-related deaths (now more than 50) at the Northwood long-term care home in Halifax. Asked about visitor restrictions at the facility, Dr. Strang conceded, during a CBC radio interview, that the policy stands to prevent some relatives of Northwood residents from ever again seeing their loved ones in person. (The question and Strang’s answer starts at the 5:30 mark in the audio below.)
“It’s very hard for me to even say that,” Dr. Strang declared, haltingly. “But that is the reality. Because unfortunately having someone coming in physically to visit can put the whole facility at risk.”
In a recent phone conversation, Dr. Baden likewise acknowledged the special anguish that the coronavirus is exacting upon nursing home residents and their kin.
“Families with elders in care are suffering terribly because of the complications of the disease,” he told me. “The process of dying is often more difficult on the living than on the dead. I think people are deeply grateful whenever doctors can show their grief. And it’s even more important now because of the helplessness so many are feeling.”
Like others who heard the interview with Dr. Strang, I was touched by the poignant honesty, humanity and compassion he exhibited during the May 12 Information Morning broadcast. So I was dumbfounded when, during a press briefing later that same day, Premier Stephen McNeil suggested that Dr. Strang had not expressed regrets about the impact of visitor restrictions at Northwood.
“What Dr. Strang told your colleagues was that it would be a little longer for the restrictions to come off of long-term care facilities so we may be a little bit longer before we get to see our loved ones,” McNeil said in response to journalist Shaina Luck (also from CBC) who asked him how the province could improve conditions in future senior care facilities.
“It was not that we would never see them again,” McNeil continued. “That was not the intent of the comment. Because I actually listened to the conversation and it was about it would be [sic] one of the last things that we would lift the restrictions from.”
I’ll leave it to the forensic psychologists to debate what compelled McNeil to counter the empathy that coursed through the airwaves after Dr. Strang’s heartfelt expression of sorrow for those who’ve been unable to bid final farewell to loved ones at Northwood.
It did not surprise me that Dr. Strang sat silently as McNeil “re-interpreted” his remarks. After all, the premier is his “boss.”
But I’m hard pressed to fathom what McNeil thought he had to gain by soft-pedalling the harsh reality that dozens of relatives (and likely more to come) of deceased residents of Northwood are now experiencing the added torment of having not, in point of fact, ever again seen them alive. Might the premier’s “keep calm and carry on” stance on the death march at Northwood be related to policies enacted on his watch that have exacerbated problems in the province’s already imperilled health care system — i.e. the refusal to increase the pathetic pay of home care aides or frontline workers at senior facilities.
This while the province continues to invest millions in the “once, twice, three times a shady deal” known as the Yarmouth ferry.
“People who don’t have the insight to face the trauma they’ve had in their own lives have a hard time dealing with the emotional suffering of others,” said Dr. Leah Werner, an Oregon family physician who has treated many COV-19 patients and consoled countless bereaved family members during her medical career.
“We cannot take the sting of death away but we can hold space with the truth of it and share our humanity with the greater community because it can help with the healing,” she continued. “It sounds to me as if your Dr. Strang did that and should be applauded for it.”
The author of Alice Walker: A Life, Evelyn C. White is a freelance writer in Halifax.
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It is tragic. One of my neighbors died in the palliative care unit of the QE in April. Two weeks before, she was still in her home feeling nauseous and tired. But her hidden cancer was swift and aggressive. Her adult sons were notified of her hospital admission but because they had traveled from out of province were not able to see their mother before she died. Our pandemic policies are keeping us safe but are heart breaking at times.