“I would maintain that thanks are the highest form of thought; and that gratitude is happiness doubled by wonder.” G.K. Chesterton (poet, author; 1874-1936)
What follows is a first-person account of encountering COVID-19, of having every member of your family simultaneously infected and some seriously ill. It is also a thank you note from a family who has an amazing capacity to express gratitude to the doctors, nurses and staff at Kingston Health Sciences Center (KHSC) at a time of great stress in their lives. It is a great privilege to present the story of the Chelva family, written by their eldest daughter, Melinda, during the 3rd and most lethal wave of COVID-19, May 2021.
The numbers of the pandemic can leave us numb! Today, 4000 people were infected in Ontario, 100 people died, and India has millions of cases. Sad news, but most of us have, out of self-protection, become somewhat calloused to the statistics. It is very different when the statistics are transformed into real people. One can then much more easily understand the ravages of COVID-19, the lives disrupted, and those lost. One begins to imagine one’s own life – what would I have done in those circumstances?
Melinda Chelva is a student in the Department of Medicine’s graduate program, Translational Medicine, affectionally known as TMED. Melinda and I got to know each other through her family’s encounter with COVID-19. Their story is remarkable and they have agreed to tell it. In their encounter with SARS-CoV-2, every family member became infected, parents were hospitalized in different cities simultaneously, and more. What is remarkable to me as I listened to their stories, coloured as they were by having already lost people they knew to COVID-19 in 2020, is their capacity for gratitude. They suffered and yet they emerged optimistic and grateful. Grateful to their healthcare providers at KHSC and beyond.
I am so proud of the work of our ICU and Medicine teams at KHSC and offer this note as a thank you and a reminder that what you do each day matters profoundly! To the Chelva family though, I have to say I admire your courage, your composure and your capacity to be grateful and kind in the face of great adversity. Without further ado, here is the story of Melinda and the Chelva family from Scarborough, Ontario.
Your ‘Average’ Scarborough Family
My family was like many other ‘average’ families in Scarborough – comprised and blessed with two loving parents who’ve always strived to provide their children with the best possible futures, and two motivated children willing to compromise anything to make their parents proud. We have always valued the importance of kindness and to never take life for granted. Every day, we led our lives with the following mantra – “help ever, hurt never” – this has served as the foundation behind all our morals and beliefs.
When COVID-19 Attacked Our Family
It was March 30th. We had all just come back home from a bike ride in our neighbourhood. Everything was fine; however, little did we know, things would slowly take a turn. Later that evening, my dad began to feel feverish, and decided to go get tested for COVID-19.
On April 1st, my dad says, “My results are in… I tested positive.” My mom, sister, and I, all looked at each other. Our hearts skipped a beat. Fast forwarding to the next few days, the rest of us also inevitably, started to experience some symptoms. Our symptoms varied amongst each of us, but included fevers, chills, a sore throat, coughing, congestion, headaches, weakness and fatigue.
Then came the day – April 9th – the day when all hell broke loose. I came downstairs that morning to find my dad slouched in his chair. I asked him whether he was feeling okay. He nodded his head “yes”, but in that moment, the rest of us knew that he was not doing well. My sister and I rushed him to the Emergency Department at Centenary Hospital. His oxygen saturation was at 70%, and a few hours later, after different methods of oxygen therapy (nasal cannula and BiPAP) failed, he was transferred to the ICU. Words were not enough to describe the level of fear, panic and stress that my mom, sister, and I, were experiencing. That night, we couldn’t sleep one bit.
The following morning, we anxiously called the ICU to hear how my dad was doing. All we were hoping to hear was, “he is getting better.” After a few rings, the ICU nurse picked up the phone and he asked me, “what was the last update you got regarding your dad?” I responded with, “yesterday, the nurse told us that his oxygen levels were fluctuating.” The nurse said, “Well… he got really critical last night, and I’m sorry to tell you this, but he had to be intubated.” Our hearts dropped. What we really hoped didn’t have to happen, ended up happening. But this was just the beginning. We had no idea that the next day my mom would also be admitted to Centenary Hospital, or that my dad would be transferred to Kingston General Hospital (KGH), where he would spend another 14 days on a ventilator – 14 days of uncertainty, pain and suffering.
Although, many moments of my hospital experience are a blur to me, which I’m very thankful for, I do remember a few moments very distinctly…
I remember a physician asking me, “Do you give us permission to put you on life support?” and I remember immediately thinking about my wife and two kids at home.
As my sedation began weaning off, I remember the irritation of a large tube down my throat and the constant agitation it caused me. I vaguely also remember biting on the tube and wanting to pull it out of my throat.
Once I was extubated, I remember being extremely confused. Truthfully, I thought I got involved in a car accident and had to be rushed to the hospital – I had no recollection of being infected by COVID-19. I had no idea I was transferred to KGH until one of the nurses explained everything to me. I remember trying to form sentences, but all that came out was air, and no sound.
When I was transferred from the ICU to Connell 9, I remember being shocked at how debilitated I had become. My hands would not stop shaking. I was unable to pick up a cup without spilling more than half of my drink. I struggled to place my feet on the ground or maintain balance without assistance. I remember feeling deprived in so many ways – I lacked strength, coordination and mobility.
But all I want to say now is thank you. Thank you to all the ICU physicians and nurses who cared for me and saved my life. And thank you to my family for not giving up on me or losing hope, because truthfully speaking, I almost did.
When COVID-19 attacked our family, I immediately thought of a similar situation that happened to another family in Scarborough. In March of last year, right at the start of the pandemic, both parents were admitted to the hospital. They were both put on a ventilator, and unfortunately, both passed away, leaving their three kids alone. I couldn’t help but think…were we going to have the same fate? Would my kids be left to live and navigate their lives on their own, without my husband and I? More than being fearful about what was going to happen to me, I was extremely worried about my children and their futures. However, I’m thankful that my condition was stable enough to return back home to my kids within a short period of time.
Saying that both of my kids stepped up to the plate is an understatement. Very quickly, our roles had reversed – even while they were sick, they did their best to care for me as if they were my parents, and I was their child.
Having both of my parents hospitalized at the same time was like a nightmare that had manifested into reality. I simply refused to picture a future without either one of them. But still, numerous, unwanted thoughts flooded my mind. I couldn’t help but think, were my parents going to live? Should I take a semester off of school to come up with a game plan for the future?
For the next few weeks, I would have to take care of my sister, our finances, phone calls from two hospitals, and all responsibilities at home, all while battling COVID-19.
Even to this day, I can’t help but think about the very last text I sent my dad while he was in the ICU at Centenary Hospital. It read, “Hi Appa, how are you feeling? You don’t need to call me, but just text me to let me know that you’re feeling better.” I was yearning to get some sort of reply from my dad that night, but received nothing. Never did I imagine that my dad would be gone for weeks, or that our family would go from 4 to 2 for a few days, within a blink of an eye.
Counting Our Blessings
When COVID-19 attacked our family, we were left feeling confused, speechless and defeated. We would be lying if we said that this entire situation didn’t traumatize us, because the truth is, it has scarred us in every possible way- emotionally, mentally and physically. My sister and I needed to change our ringtones last week, because of the unbearable anxiety it caused us. Each time either hospital called us, our hearts would sink, and we would panic about what news we were about to hear. Believe it or not, the word “ventilator” continues to give my mom chills till this very day.
Even though my dad has a very long road to recovery ahead of him, we are counting our blessings. Almost a month has passed since my dad was admitted to the hospital, and as we all sit together, cozied up in our ‘family room’, we feel relieved, blessed and ultimately, grateful.
We will forever be thankful for Dr. Stephen Archer and everyone at KGH who has played a role in returning my dad back home to us. We are thankful for all the physicians, pharmacists, respiratory therapists, bedside nurses, clinicians-in-training, and physiotherapists who were involved in my dad’s care team. Without you, our family would have been broken today. We are thankful for Dr. Karen Yeates, who has helped my family stay positive during such a difficult time. She patiently guided us through every aspect of this journey and has always been only one call away. We are thankful for Dr. Paula James and the TMED program leadership for supporting my family though this challenge, and truly making me feel like a very valued member of the Department of Medicine. Words are simply not enough to express the level of gratitude that my family and I will always have for all of you.
This experience is something that nobody else and their family should go through. We are still battling with fatigue, weakness, and the inability to concentrate. However, moving forward, we will continue to pray for all the other families who are going through the same journey.
My dad mentioned that everyone at KGH saved his life. But the truth is, they didn’t just save my dad, they saved our family.
Postscript: On a rainy day in late April, I had the pleasure to have a visit from Jesica and Melinda. They stopped by Kingston as they were picking up their Dad to return home. I walked to the car to see them off, the entire family, smiling and intact. Ranchula said I must come by to have a barbeque with them once the pandemic ends. As they drove away, I thought how lucky I have been to have had a life in Medicine and to meet people like the Chelvas. Their humanity shines through the darkness of this pandemic.