Bronwyn James spent a quiet Christmas with her two adult children this year, going over photos of some Christmases past, and reflecting on the person who wasn’t with them this year: husband and father Doug Fung, who on Oct. 29 died of COVID-19 at age 63.
James said initially she didn’t want to blame anyone for Fung catching the virus – which contact tracers told her likely happened during a hospital stay earlier in October.
But James said after reading about the 31 patients who contracted the virus – including 12 who died – in the recent month-long Lions Gate Hospital outbreak, “it made me mad.”
James said she noticed things she didn’t feel were right during Fung’s stay in a fourth-floor ward – where the outbreak was later declared – but was too busy advocating for her husband’s care to raise a fuss. Now she wonders if that was the right decision.
“I can’t say for sure that it would have prevented him catching [coronavirus],” she said. “I would at least feel that everything had been done to prevent it. But I don’t feel that way anymore.”
James first met Fung in her native Australia in the mid-1980s while Fung was travelling – one of his great loves. Fung was born and grew up in Vancouver and went to Eric Hamber Secondary. He would later return to the school as a teacher to spend most of his career there teaching high school science.
By the early 1990s, the couple had moved to Deep Cove, bought a home and were raising their two children.
Fung had a wicked sense of humour and a keen interest in many topics, said James. His lifelong interest in biology led him to using his backyard greenhouse to grow exotic tropical plants from around the world – including some carnivorous ones – and he had a large saltwater fish tank.
He enjoyed teaching and was looking forward to more travelling after he retired.
Fast forward to the summer of 2020: Fung was just two years away from retirement when the lifelong non-smoker was diagnosed with Stage 4 lung cancer.
The news was a shock, said James, but there was also some hope. Analysis of Fung’s cancer showed he was a candidate for a promising new form of immuno-therapy that had shown good results in extending patients’ lives and in some cases even sending their cancer into remission. First, however, Fung received treatment to help shrink the tumours that had spread to his brain.
He had a bad reaction, grew delirious and had to be hospitalized at Lions Gate for 10 days. Medication ultimately brought the reaction under control, said James.
Many visitors, lack of masks and cleaning were concerns
But she said while Fung was in hospital, she noticed things that bothered her when she visited. While she had been led to believe patients were only permitted one visitor, James said she saw other patients receiving many visitors, who appeared to change daily. One day, a nurse looked in on another patient in Fung’s room and asked a visitor there who they were and why they weren’t wearing a mask – but didn’t ask that person to leave.
During the time she visited, cleaning in Fung’s hospital room appeared to be minimal, said James – noting she pointed out to cleaning staff dirty tissues and napkins that had been lying on the floor for several days. Fung’s hands weren’t washed before or after he ate, she added.
Eventually Fung pulled out of his delirium. But James noticed before his release that he had developed other problems.
“He was really short of breath,” she said. “He had no energy.”
When she mentioned it to a doctor, she was told, “That’s just his cancer advancing.”
“I guess no one thought to test for COVID-19,” she said. “No one mentioned it.”
“I just had an uneasy feeling.”
Over the next few days at home, Fung’s breathing became worse.
Then, five days after Fung had been discharged, James began to feel unwell. “I had a headache and sore neck,” she said.
She went to get tested. When her test came back positive, she knew immediately what had happened to Fung.
Three family members tested positive
Both Fung and their daughter, who was living at home, subsequently tested positive.
Within days, Fung collapsed at home.
When paramedics arrived, “His blood oxygen level was at 60-something per cent,” said James.
Soon after Fung was admitted to hospital, his doctor called James.
“He told me Doug was not likely going to survive this,” she said.
Her son, who had not seen his dad during his brief time at home, was allowed to go in and visit.
The next time the doctor called it was to say special permission had been granted for James to make an end-of-life visit to her husband.
A brief, final visit
A nurse met her with gown and gloves at a back entrance of the hospital and took her up a back staircase, James recalled.
In his hospital room, she spent time talking to Fung, and playing some of his favourite music from the 1970s, including the first song they ever danced to.
When she left, she was told Fung didn’t have much time left.
The nurse, who had stayed by Fung’s side, later called to say that Fung had died.
James said she’s grateful for that compassion and for the brief time she was allowed to see her husband.
But she has questions about how Fung got COVID-19. After 10 days in Lions Gate Hospital, Fung was showing symptoms well before an official outbreak was declared. James said she never heard from the hospital, even after Fung died, but added contact tracers who spoke to her didn’t see how he could have picked up the virus anywhere else.
Vancouver Coastal Health responds to concerns
In an emailed statement to the North Shore News, Vancouver Coastal Health responded to the concerns raised by James.
“We would like to share our deepest condolences with the families, friends and loved ones impacted by the COVID-19 outbreak at Lions Gate Hospital,” the statement read, before outlining the steps taken in the hospital to prevent the spread of the virus throughout the pandemic.
“Our guideline is one essential visitor per patient for a maximum of two hours a day. There are exceptions, for example, where the patient is at the end-of-life. … As per provincial guidelines, all visitors are screened for signs and symptoms of COVID-19. They are also asked to perform hand hygiene and are given a medical grade mask to wear for the entirety of their visit to the hospital.”
The statement also noted that stricter infection prevention and control measures are put in place during an outbreak.
Following Fung’s death, James and her daughter faced the dual challenges of living with their grief in isolation while recovering from their own illnesses.
“There were times when I had terrible chest pain. I’d think ‘Is this my grief, or my stress or am I having a heart attack?’” said James.
“I still don’t have full lung capacity. If I walk up a hill, I’m just struggling to get my breath.”
An outpouring of support from the community has helped. James said she’s also been touched by the comments from Fung’s former students and colleagues at Eric Hamber, where she has set up a scholarship in her husband’s name.
As a science teacher, Fung believed strongly that a vaccine would come and that medical science would prevail, said James.
But it didn’t come soon enough to buy him more time.
“And so for him to have died from COVID, maybe because someone wasn’t careful enough or took a risk and went into hospital anyway, it really is sort of heartbreaking,” she said.
James said Monday she still had not heard anything from Lions Gate Hospital, where she hopes appropriate COVID-19 protocols will be made clearer to patients, staff and family members.
“I’d like them to learn from my experience.”