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'The cruellest goodbye: how coronavirus took our mum'

Daughter says mother was 'alone' during final days

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Sad end: Eileen O’Neill, who died of Covid-19 on Wednesday afternoon. Eileen with her daughter Siobhan on Siobhan’s wedding day, wearing the blue outfit she had wanted to be buried in

Sad end: Eileen O’Neill, who died of Covid-19 on Wednesday afternoon. Eileen with her daughter Siobhan on Siobhan’s wedding day, wearing the blue outfit she had wanted to be buried in

Sad end: Eileen O’Neill, who died of Covid-19 on Wednesday afternoon. Eileen with her daughter Siobhan on Siobhan’s wedding day, wearing the blue outfit she had wanted to be buried in

Eileen O’Neill knew death was approaching. She had been in isolation since last Friday, shunted away from the people she loved and desperately frightened by everything she could see around her.

Faceless figures in biohazard suits, double-gloved hands checking her pulse, knowing glances behind medical-grade goggles.

She was lucid and conscious, right up to the very end, in the solitary company of a virus she had feared would come for her long before it did.

“Mum had told me she was afraid of getting it,” her daughter Siobhan said.

“For her to get it and then be put in isolation was extremely frightening for her. I know she was scared. I know that. That’s the reality of this virus. You can’t be with someone you love when they need you. All the normal things you do when someone is sick and approaching the end, like mopping their brow, holding their hand, whispering into their ear, you can’t do any of that and that person is completely alone.”

Less than a week ago, 88-year-old Eileen, a glamorous, independent woman who had overcome numerous health battles, entered an isolation ward in St Vincent’s hospital, Dublin.

She had fallen ill at home in Loughlinstown and paramedics recorded a high temperature. She was immediately tested for Covid-19.

Eileen was put in an isolation ward and her family were not allowed to visit. Her test result on Sunday was positive.

“When I got the call from the hospital I knew straight away that was it,” said Siobhan. “I knew it would take more than a miracle to pull her through this. I asked (the staff) had she been told and they initially said no. I was relieved to hear that because she herself was so frightened of Covid and I knew it would have a negative effect on her. And then there was the fact we couldn’t be with her, I knew that would compound things.”

From that point on, Eileen O’Neill’s end-of-life journey took a path her heart-broken loved ones had to send her on alone. The protocols were clear. Under no circumstances could any family members go to see her. Instead, communication would be done by phone. Two years away from turning 90, Eileen was still working off an “old brick mobile”. There would be no Facetime, no picture exchanges.

“It was extremely difficult,” said Siobhan. “But we knew how serious the virus was and that we had to abide by the rules.”

For Siobhan Cullen and her family, the news that Eileen had become infected with the deadly virus came as a shock. Due to her underlying respiratory issues, all the necessary precautions had been taken to ensure she was protected long before any cases were recorded here.

“She was completely immobile due to a previous stroke,” said Siobhan.

“The past two weeks she gave no indication that there was anything wrong with her, apart from being tired. We were all very, very cautious around her. She hadn’t been out of the house since February and she had only seen five people, all of whom had been taking precautions. Her two carers have tested negative for the virus and the other three people, including me, were all family.”

Alone, frightened and unaware of the growing pandemic claiming lives across the world, Eileen counted down the hours in silence.

“She was alone,” said Siobhan.

“I know she was getting the best care, but I also know there was no one sitting beside her. I know she was looking at all those people coming and going, suited and booted, and she would have known why. That’s heart-breaking for me to think about.”

Last weekend, as the nation got to grips with a sweeping set of measures, Siobhan remained at home, powerless. She was now in self-isolation, following the advice of her GP, waiting to be tested. Updates on her mother’s condition were regular, but she knew there was an increasing climate of caution. She began to make plans for the possibility that her mother might not survive.

“I asked the staff at St Vincent’s Hospital if we would be allowed to get in to see her if it came to the end,” she said. “Through no fault of anyone, the protocols on this are changing on the hour. One lady I spoke to said yes, arrangements would be made... and the next time when she[Eileen] was moved I was told there were no guarantees. That was hard for me to hear.”

By Tuesday, Eileen had been moved closer to a nurses’ station where she could be monitored evermore closely. The following day, Siobhan got a call, asking her to come to see her mother.

“I knew it was time. Nothing prepares you for what you have to do to see a loved one dying from this.”

In an isolated area behind a reception desk, Siobhan and her brother Kenneth took instruction from two nurses and a doctor on how to robe up for entry into the isolation unit: covers over their shoes; a full-length gown with full sleeves; two pairs of gloves, one placed over the other. Each step of the way, washing their hands.

That was just the start.

“There is a beanie-type hat for your head that you tie at the back,” recalled Siobhan. “You have a facemask but it’s not the normal facemask that you tie at the back. It’s much tougher and it completely seals your mouth and nosetotally. It expands as you breathe.

“You have a pair of goggles and then over the goggles you put on a full facial visor. They have hand gel there and at every step you are washing your hands as well. My mum was totally conscious when we walked in like that.”

As they were guided along a corridor, Siobhan and Kenneth were told that once they were with their mother, they could not touch her face, but were permitted to hold her hand. “I was very conscious that if we didn’t abide by that we wouldn’t be let in.

“That was my big fear because the protocols were changing daily. I was just so happy to get to see her that I didn’t want to put a foot wrong.

“My brother couldn’t stay. He just couldn’t do it. We had to tell her who we were, but that wasn’t because she wasn’t conscious or didn’t recognise us, it was because everyone looked the same.”

Faced with a situation that was growing ever more beyond her control, Siobhan decided not to tell her mother that she was nearing the end of her life.

“I just didn’t want to frighten her,” she said.

“I didn’t want her to know why I was there, and when she asked I just said that I got fed up not being able to hold her hand. The doctor played along. I think that deep down my mum knew why I was there. I know in my heart that she knew the truth, but she went with it.”

As day turned to night, Siobhan kept vigil at her mother’s bedside, listening as she struggled to breathe, but clung to life. Anything that went into the room could not go out, so she had no mobile phone and was unable to communicate with family.

“I stayed all night,” she said. “I was there, in all that gear, holding her hand. I talked to her all night long, about my dad, about when we were young, about her grandkids. I talked and talked and talked. I told her daddy was waiting for her. I said rosaries out loud, rosaries in my head.

“She kept telling me to go home. Her breathing was very poor and deteriorating. She was literally fighting for a breath. At one stage she said to me, ‘Do you think I’ll pull through this?’ I said, ‘I don’t think so, Mam’.”

It was a lonely night, recalled Siobhan. She had kept vigil before beside people who had died and the reassuring visit of a nurse on those occasions, in and out in a show of support, had always been a comfort. Covid-19 denied her any such humanity.

“I was so aware that no one could come in,” said Siobhan. “You don’t have the staff coming in and out to check on you or comfort you. Nobody was coming in unless they absolutely had to. It was so cold and clinical.”

Eileen passed away shortly after 3pm on Wednesday. She struggled until the very end.

“She had a horrendous death,” said Siobhan. “When she died, I sat with her for an hour, holding her hand and then I had to be pragmatic about what would happen next. I knew there was a chance we wouldn’t get her personal belongings back so I had to remove all her jewellery and take it there and then. It sounds so mercenary but that’s what I had to do.”

The most difficult conversations came next. Siobhan was told that her mother’s body would be “double bagged” in a high-spec body bag. Eileen would not be taken to the chapel of rest, but instead to a specially designated area in the morgue.

“The staff there had to leave. The people who met us had to be gowned. We couldn’t touch her, and we got 10 minutes with her. I want people to understand how devastating that was.”

This week, as she self-isolated, Siobhan prepared for her mother’s burial in circumstances that are hard to believe.

Consultations with the undertaker have had to be done via video-link. Mourners have not been able to call to her home. Grief is being held in suspension while Covid-19 tightens its grip over a family in a very surreal time of despair.

“Death is very much a part of life,” said Siobhan. “Here in Ireland, we commemorate the dead so well. For us, trapped at home at the mercy of this virus, there are no arms to fall into for a hug. My friends can’t come and pay their respects. We can’t come together and mourn. People need to understand the devastating domino effect of this virus and all that it brings to your door.”

Struck down by coronavirus at the age of 88, the long life of Eileen O’Neill will today end with a short ceremony at a funeral parlour in Dublin.

It will not be the ending she wanted. Her funeral wishes, expressed long ago to her nearest and dearest, included carefully selected hymns and readings. She had picked out the flowers, the gifts, the pallbearers. She wanted to be dressed in the navy outfit she wore to Siobhan’s wedding.

None of that will be possible. Today, in a small funeral home in Dublin, four people will gather to say their farewells. Communion will be passed around on tissue paper. There will be no burial Mass.

“This virus is vicious, and it leaves people to die an extremely lonely death. My mother will be buried with just four of us present. Her coffin will have to be disinfected after we leave her and none of us can grieve with our wider family and friends because we have to self-isolate until we are tested.

“This is the cruellest end to a life.”

In memory of Eileen, Siobhan is asking readers to consider donating to Feed The Heroes here

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