Pat McNeil, who is dying of brain cancer and has only weeks left, is desperate to see his young daughters, but COVID-19 rules are keeping them apart.
"It's just cruel," said his wife Jo-Anne on Wednesday. "Two months ago, he was given two or three months left to live."
McNeil, 60, is a thalidomide survivor. The drug was widely used in the 1950s and '60s to treat pregnant women with nausea, but it resulted in severe birth defects. He grew up to be a bank manager and a longtime volunteer and chairman of the Children's Rehabilitation Foundation. He was admitted to Riverview Health Centre's palliative care unit April 25. Since then, McNeil has only seen his daughters, aged 22 and 19, once; and he was allowed a single visit with his sister.
"It's not like he's 90. He is 60 and he has young daughters who still live at home. I see him and then, when I get home, I console our daughters. And then I go back the next day," Jo-Anne said.
In an attempt to get permission for more visits during the time he has left, she wrote to Premier Brian Pallister, the health minister, and the Winnipeg Regional Health Authority.
Staff at Riverview said she could add one more designated visitor, but Jo-Anne said "that will have me pick between his sister and his two children.
"I'm still not happy," she said.
McNeil, who was born in 1960, was one of Manitoba's three thalidomide victims. His left arm ends at his elbow and his right arm is slightly longer.
Jo-Anne said her husband never let his disability stop him: he built a rec room in their house and renovated their cottage. While raising their daughters, he said there was only one thing he wouldn't do.
"He said he didn't want to bathe them because he was worried they would slip out of his grip," she said.
McNeil suffered a seizure in late 2018 and was diagnosed with a terminal brain tumour.
He lived at home until he was moved to Riverview.
"We couldn't do it anymore," his wife said. "But it broke our hearts. We knew as soon as he was there this would happen."
Jo-Anne said the facility will allow more visitors when he is about two weeks away from dying.
"As far as we know, when he gets to that point, he might be in a coma," she said. "His daughters want to see him now."
The Winnipeg Regional Health Authority said it wouldn't comment on individual situations. A spokesperson said visitation restrictions are due to COVID-19, and they encourage families with concerns about their individual situations to speak with the facility or the WRHA's critical client relations.
A circular issued by Shared Health says because of the province's code red restrictions, visits are restricted to protect staff and their patients.
"While preventing the spread of this virus within our facilities remains a central priority, the likelihood that COVID-19 will be a part of our 'new normal' for a longer duration requires us to find a sustainable balance between preventative measures and the many benefits of interaction between patients and their support systems, including essential partners and other visitors," the notice says.
The circular does note that, when the patient is diagnosed as being in the last two weeks of their life, "a maximum of four essential care partners may be identified to visit."
"Riverview could gown and glove us at the south entrance, not the main entrance, and we could take the elevator there up to his floor and never talk or touch anyone." – Jo–Anne McNeil
Of those four, two can be there at the same time as long as they stay physically distanced.
Jo-Anne said she understands the need for hospitals to do what they can to prevent the spread of COVID-19, but she believes Riverview could allow more visitors.
"Riverview could gown and glove us at the south entrance, not the main entrance, and we could take the elevator there up to his floor and never talk or touch anyone. It's doable.
"I don't understand why they are holding back."
Kevin Rollason is one of the more versatile reporters at the Winnipeg Free Press. Whether it is covering city hall, the law courts, or general reporting, Rollason can be counted on to not only answer the 5 Ws — Who, What, When, Where and Why — but to do it in an interesting and accessible way for readers.