Posted: July 29, 2020

When Bob Charters lost his wife Kathleen to cancer in 1978, he raised his daughters, Anita and Alisa, as a single dad, developing a close bond with his girls. Between phone calls and visits, the sisters were used to checking in with their dad, a resident of the Forest Heights long-term care home, several times a week, until COVID-19 changed everything.

On April 22, as long-term care (LTC) facilities in our region were hard hit by COVID-19, the Ministry of Health and Long-Term Care issued a directive for Ontario hospitals to assist our LTC colleagues and GRH stepped up to help in their time of need.  In a matter of days, GRH established a COVID-19 unit based on Pioneer Terrace 3 (PT3) at our Freeport Campus to receive low acuity COVID-19 positive patients from Forest Heights in order to help control the spread of COVID at this facility.

Img 20200729 Covid Forest Heights Pt3 Bob Charters
Bob Charters is one of many Forest Heights long-term care residents who was transferred to GRH's Freeport Campus to recover from COVID-19.

Among the dozens of residents transferred to Freeport was 85-year old Bob, a lifetime musician from the East Coast and father to daughters Anita and Alisa. With a diagnosis of dementia and side effects from a recent stroke impairing his vision and mobility, Bob came to GRH confirmed positive with COVID-19, but, according to Alisa, “didn’t experience symptoms beyond a really bad headache.”

Building a new unit, literally overnight, meant there were no phones and little technology to connect residents with their families in the early days. It took time but soon phones were installed in patient rooms. 

“At first it was really hard,” says Anita. Then came Ashley.

Redeployed from her regular role as the clinical secretary in GRH’s pain clinic, Ashley Gonder joined the COVID unit expecting regular administrative duties. What she found was a passion to do so much more.

“Over the first week, I got to know the patients and I felt for them,” says Ashley. COVID positive patients cannot leave their rooms, which limits social interaction. “I wanted to help keep them connected to the outside world.”

In addition to her regular duties, Ashley visits with patients on the unit and coordinates phone and video calls between patients like Bob, and their families; every day for some to once a week.

Img 20200729 Covid Forest Heights Pt3 Bob Charters Alisa
Bob is pictured here with his daughter, Alisa, on one of their last pre-COVID visits in February 2020.

Working with a dozen or so patients on the unit, Ashley worked the most with Bob and his daughters, connecting them often daily, when Bob is having a good day. From catching up on the news to laughing about old memories, being able to connect by phone has been an important part of Bob’s COVID recovery, says Alisa.

“Ashley has been a godsend,” says Anita. “I’m not sure what we would do without her. She goes above and beyond to connect us with dad.”

Still, GRH’s zero visitor guideline has been tough for the family, who hadn’t seen their dad since March. That didn’t stop Anita and Alisa from getting creative on Father’s Day, though. With balloons and posters, the sisters and their families stood outside Bob’s window and, chatting with him by phone, waved to him – 2 floors up – from Freeport’s rose garden, looking up at his smiling face.

“It wasn’t how we wanted to spend Father’s Day but we were so lucky to be able to do this,” says Alisa.

On June 30, the outbreak at Forest Heights was declared over and residents will soon begin to make the long-awaited journey back home to long-term care where visiting guidelines mean they can be reunited with their loved ones. A significant milestone, but a bittersweet one for the staff on Freeport’s COVID unit.

“The most rewarding part of this has been the relationships I’ve built with both patients and their families,” says Ashley. “I am sad to see them go, but I’m so glad to know they’ve recovered.”

Bob’s care has now transitioned to palliative and he is once again able to spend time with his daughters. During this time, both sisters remain grateful for the care their dad had while at Freeport.

“We are so thankful every day for the care he received at GRH. We knew he was good hands.”