Beloved Abbotsford grandpas perish from COVID-19, families decry lack of communication from care facility

Raghbir Singh Dosanjh and Ronald Young died in April after stays in Worthington Pavilion’s rehab unit

Update: This story has been updated to include a response from Fraser health.

One loved to walk, the other would dance the night away.

Decades ago, Ronald Young and Raghbir Singh Dosanjh left home, circled the globe and built better lives for themselves and their families. Both succeeded, graduating from decades of hard work and personal sacrifice into happy grandparenthood.

Dosanjh, 86, and Young, 80, died within a day of one another in mid-April in Abbotsford Regional Hospital. Two weeks prior, the two men had been residents of Worthington Pavilion’s rehabilitation unit when the first case of COVID-19 was discovered at the facility.

But as they mourn their fathers and celebrate their respective lives, the daughters of both men say the facility where they likely contracted the virus needs to do a better job of communicating with its patients’ families.

• • • •

Dosanjh came to Canada in 1970, trading life in Punjab for a new job in a new country. He began working as a millworker in Port Alberni. In 1974, after stops in Quesnel and Prince George and with enough money to sponsor his family, Dosanjh brought his wife and four children to Canada. Dosanjh had grown up amid political turmoil; his family left their lives behind when they relocated to Punjab as India split following independence.

In Canada, Dosanjh found stability and earned prosperity. He pulled logs from the Fraser, then tended the fields of the raspberry farm he bought near Abbotsford International Airport.

“With his hard work, he gave us a better life,” said his daughter Rani Birk.

His wife’s health issues also meant that, despite the heavy workload, Dosanjh was frequently the primary caregiver for his children.

“He was strict growing up because he wanted us all to have a good education,” said Birk, who now works at a paralegal.

Dosanjh succeeded, and as his children had kids of their own, he took joy in life as a grandpa and regular babysitter, watching Birk’s children when their mother was at work.

The strict father turned into a much more permissive grandpa.

“He adored them,” Birk said. “They could do whatever they wanted with grandpa and grandma. If they wanted ice cream or whenever they wanted anything, he would be there giving it to them. He was the one who would take them to the park.”

He also remained active. Until he suffered a stroke in January, he would walk twice a day to Rotary Stadium, where he would circle the track a half-dozen times and mingle with friends.

Dosanjh was a “very lovable, huggable person,” his daughter said. “His friends call me and they can’t believe that such a nice man had to go at such times. None of his friends could pay their last respects to him at the funeral.”

• • • •

Young took a different route to Abbotsford.

An orphan growing up in east Vancouver, he joined the Navy at the age of just 16. The move “saved him from the streets,” his daughter Shalegh Moorthy said.

In 1962, naval ships from Australia docked in Vancouver, and CFB Aldergrove put on a dance. Young was there, and so too were a cadre of single women who worked at BC Tel. One woman, named Lily, told her parents the dance was actually a work meeting. It wasn’t.

The following January, The News named Lily Young its “Bride of the Month.”

The couple eventually had four children, and Young would serve 31 years in the navy, rising through the ranks as a radio communicator and retiring at the top non-commissioned level in the Canadian Forces.

The navy took Young around the globe – and took his family to military bases in Halifax, Vancouver, Aldergrove and Victoria – but weeks and months spent at sea left him absent for much of his daughter’s earlier years.

Young retired from the navy in 1986, settled in the Fraser Valley and took a job as a jail guard for the Abbotsford Police Department. Later, into his 70s, he would also work as a lunchtime supervisor at W.A. Fraser middle school – a role not so different than that of jail guard.

In retirement, Young delighted in his grandchildren and the chance to care for them while their parents worked.

“He always wanted a family of his own. He got his family, but it wasn’t until he became a grandfather that he really found the enjoyment of the children because he had been working,” Moorthy said. “My mom and him raised my kids for a good chunk of the years, especially when they were little. He really took that on. He loved being grandpa.”

A self-taught man who loved to read an encyclopedia, Young was also a joker who loved to dance.

“At my husband’s 50th birthday, he wouldn’t get off the dance floor,” Moorthy said. “He liked to do the jive. He thought he was pretty smooth on that dance floor.”

• • • •

Young and Dosanjh were both in Worthington Pavilion’s rehabilitation unit when the first case of COVID-19 was detected in early April.

Dosanjh had suffered a stroke in January and was working to regain his co-ordination on the right side of his body. Young, meanwhile, had fought off pneumonia at the start of the year and needed to improve his mobility to scale steps at his home and get in shape to receive a pacemaker.

The families of both men expected their loved ones to be able to return home. And relatives of both were told not to worry on April 3, when they called Worthington after seeing on the news that a case of COVID-19 had been detected at the site.

Birk said her father had made “great progress” by early March, but his improvement slowed when restrictions on movement in the facility were enacted.

On April 3, Dosanjh’s son called the facility, and was surprised to learn his father would be discharged immediately to his care. Birk said there was no suggestion that Dosanjh should self-isolate once he returned to the house he shared with his son and elderly wife.

“They said he was in a part of the facility in a wing where the [COVID-positive] patient didn’t have contact with anybody.”

A week later, an ambulance took Dosanjh to hospital. His health rapidly deteriorated and, within 24 hours, he was on a ventilator. Warned that it was unlikely Dosanjh would survive, Birk and her children were able to put on protective equipment to see him one last time.

“They allowed us to gear up, put on the proper attire to see my dad, give my dad a hug, hold his hand. I was able to talk to my dad and even though he was on a ventilator and it seemed like he was unconscious, he understood,” she said. “The final words that he heard from me were that I loved him. I’m grateful that I got a chance to say that to him, because I understand that a lot of others don’t get to say that, to say their last words to their loved one because of the isolation.”

• • • •

In mid-March, Worthington closed its doors to visitors. To replace traditional visits, families would go to their loved one’s windows and talk over the phone.

Moorthy was at her father’s window when he was told a fellow patient had been diagnosed with COVID-19.

“We called and asked them if my dad was safe,” Moorthy said. “They said yes. They said he wasn’t in contact with anyone, and that it was just one case and in a different area of Worthington at the time.”

The window visits continued, as did multiple calls each day with family members. Young’s wife asked again about her husband’s safety on April 10, and was told not to worry.

A couple days later, on Easter Sunday, Young’s granddaughters walked up to his window, but found only an empty room. They walked around the facility and managed to track down their grandfather’s new living quarters. But the family’s worries escalated over the ensuing days as Young stopped using his phone.

“My dad, his whole communication was through his cellphone and he would call us all 20 times a day.”

When his wife called Worthington on the Monday, she was told he was in a bath and that he would call back when he got out. He didn’t.

“She kept calling them asking ‘How’s he doing? Is he OK?’ and looking to confirm that he’s OK and could they please have them call her, and then that never happened,” Moorthy said.

She said calls to the facility often went unanswered. And while family could leave a message on an answering machine, there was often a long delay before calls were returned.

On Wednesday, Moorthy visited her father’s window and spoke briefly to him on the phone. He told her he was very tired and that his back, which had been bugging him for days, was sore.

The next day, on April 16, Young was taken to hospital. There, he tested positive for COVID-19. Doctors told his family that “his whole left lung was compromised with pneumonia.” He died just two days later.

“They’re supposed to be safe; you have him in a safe place so that they can heal or get better,” Moorthy said. “Why was his left lung completely compromised before he was taken to hospital?”

RELATED: COVID-19 case diagnosed at Abbotsford rehabilitation residence

RELATED: Three deaths and more than 20 COVID-19 cases linked to Abbotsford’s Worthington Pavilion

RELATED: Senior’s death prompt questions about scale of COVID-19 outbreak at Abbotsford care facility

• • • •

Birk called the lack of communication between Worthington and her family “shocking.” She said her family had never been told exactly why her father was discharged in early April.

“They should have discharged him prior to that. Why did they discharge him on the same date the public finds out there was a COVID case in that facility?”

Others have similar concerns.

In an interview with The News last week, the granddaughter of a third COVID-19 victim, Ervin Friedenstab, raised concerns about communication between Worthington and patients’ families.

Cassie Friedenstab said the facility didn’t notify her family when he was moved to Abbotsford Regional Hospital after being diagnosed with the virus in early April. Ervin died on April 17, the same day as Dosanjh and a day before Young.

“They were not informing my family what was going on,” Cassie said.

The daughter of a fourth COVID-patient told The News her family was kept out of the loop about the care of her mother, who she said gets confused and is hard of hearing.

Jan Gardner said that when she called Worthington in early April to inquire about the safety of the facility, she was told there were no COVID-19 cases present. Only after reading a news account over the phone did the staff member admit that a patient had been diagnosed with the virus and since removed.

Two weeks later, on April 20, a staff member called Gardner to tell her that her mother had tested positive for the virus.

“We thought she was in the clear,” Gardner said. Her mother had shared a room with three other people, but staff wouldn’t say if any of them had tested positive for the virus.

Gardner said the long-term care facility where her mother usually lived had done a much better job at informing families, and she and others applauded communication from Abbotsford Regional Hospital. .

While the number of cases linked to Worthington had ticked upwards according to a tally kept by the province, those figures were never provided to families. Only last week, when The News reported that 16 people had tested positive at Worthington’s rehab facility, along with seven at an attached long-term care unit, did many families learn of the scope of the outbreak at Worthington. The facility has experienced the largest care home outbreak in the Fraser Valley. Three people died, according to provincial numbers. (It’s unclear whether the death of Dosanjh, who was at home when he began showing symptoms, is accounted for in those numbers.)

Dr. Martin Lavoie, Fraser Health’s chief medical health officer, said Thursday that facilities are busy during outbreaks and might not be able to always attend the phone. Pressed on whether complaints from patients’ families will cause the health authority and Worthington to re-evaluate how it communicates with families, Lavoie said:

“We’re taking note of these things and we can certainly look at how to improve the situation … We take that seriously, and sometimes things happen not exactly the way we’d like and that’s unfortunate. We’re certainly open and sensitive to receiving that feedback. “

Birk and Gardner also suggested that care homes shouldn’t have been admitting new patients as the pandemic spread. Fraser Health has said officials take a variety of precautions to ensure transfers from hospital to care homes are safe.

“When a person is ready to be discharged … we are pretty reassured they don’t have COVID-19,” Lavoie said in a prior briefing, according to the Globe and Mail.

• • • •

For those with loved ones still in Worthington, there is some reason for optimism, as the number of cases diagnosed at the site hasn’t risen recently. But Jan Gardner, Cassie Friedenstab, Rani Birk and Shalegh Moorthy all say Worthington needs to keep the families of its patients informed.

“We truly appreciate the work the health-care workers are doing and understand that they are overworked,” Moorthy wrote in an email, “but these are people’s loved ones and, when we are in a time where a family member cannot be there every day to be the advocate for the health and well-being of the patient directly, you want to be able to trust that there is enough staff available to ensure these patients are being heard and then, when you are told they are safe, that they are.

“Someone should be available to return calls right away or answer the phone, and opportunities should be made to make sure a family member can communicate directly with the person inside if they are not able to make it outside the window that day. We know these are unprecedented times and everyone is learning along the way, but there needs to be some changes and quickly.”

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