Barrhaven Cancer Patient Fighting Pneumonia Contracts COVID-19 In Hospital

Barrhaven journalist Charlie Senack recounts the shocking and disappointing ordeal that his mother endured, reminding us that COVID has not yet gone away

By Charlie Senack

Hospitals are supposed to be a place to go and get better; a place to heal the sick.

Unfortunately that was not the case for my mom Glenda Senack, a stage 3 lung cancer survivor, who contracted COVID-19 while being treated in hospital for an aggressive infection.

The ordeal began on Aug. 7, when she was transported to the General Campus of the Ottawa Hospital after dealing with a nasty cough and shortness of breath for about two weeks. Scans revealed aggressive pneumonia in the lungs. Doctors believe she had radiation pneumonitis, a rare infection that can attack five per cent of cancer patients who receive radiation to the chest. It comes in three stages — the third being most severe. Antibiotics were ordered and she was sent home. That lasted only eight hours.

At 3:30 a.m. the following morning, an ambulance was again at our Barrhaven home as she struggled to breathe. Just walking five feet was like running a marathon; she was more sick than she was during her 30 rounds of radiation and nine rounds of chemotherapy.

After nearly a day in the emergency department of two hospitals, my 65-year-old mom was hooked up to antibiotics through IV and was administered heavy doses of steroids to fight off the infection which had been running through her body for weeks. She was in a semi-private room with only one person, but a few days later was moved to a four-person room. That’s where she was exposed to COVID-19.

Glenda Senack in her room at the Ottawa General Hospital.

On Aug. 15, we were notified one of her roommates tested positive. The following day, my mom also received a positive test. The symptoms started off as flu-like but progressed as the days went on.

The news was shocking and disappointing. How could an immunocompromised patient with two lung-related illnesses be exposed to COVID — a virus that likes to attack the lungs?

I went searching for answers. In a letter sent to me by Cameron Love, president and CEO of the Ottawa Hospital, he said a review with the Infection Prevention and Control team found that all protocols were followed.

“I can tell you that the testing and movement of patients were done in alignment with existing protocols, and patients were placed on appropriate precautions,” Love wrote, noting that he didn’t want to “minimize the impact” it had on my mother and family.

While a response was appreciated, his statement is simply not true and fails to provide any sort of accountability.

After being exposed to a virus which has killed over 6,955,000 globally according to the world health agency, my mom was left in the room with the infected individual for hours. After my mom tested positive for COVID, an elderly patient who was negative remained in the room for half a day before being separated. During that time, she had a visitor who entered unmasked, ignoring the clear signage which said full PPE had to be worn. Even after repeated asks, the woman continued to refuse to follow the rules. Does any of this sound like protocol was followed?

Glenda Senack talks to a CBC reporter about her ordeal.

But that’s not all. In a statement sent to the Ottawa Citizen newspaper, a spokesperson for the General Hospital said masks are still mandatory in outbreak units, patients rooms, and in the emergency department of the hospital. While true on paper, it’s not being enforced. During our time up at the hospital we saw many visitors seeing patients unmasked, and over 25 per cent of those in the ER were either unmasked or had them hanging from their chins.

Where is the accountability in all of this? Health experts are predicting a surge in COVID cases this fall and trends are already heading upwards. Hospitalizations due to the virus rose 11 per cent in the province of Ontario last week and wastewater has hit viral levels not seen since the spring. It’s a clear indication of what is to come.

Hospitals are a setting where the most vulnerable patients go to get better. It should be a place where people can feel safe. Wearing a mask in these settings is not a hardship; it’s about saving lives.

It’s too late for my mom to not contract COVID-19 in the hospital, but it’s not too late to ensure other people don’t experience what she went through. My mom is fortunate to have lived to tell the tale; others might not be so lucky. 

While her lungs were for the most part spared during her COVID-19 diagnosis, it was still an exhausting and unwanted ordeal which had her bedridden for days.

It’s been a tough year for my family and I; a year of change and adapting. It’s been most tough on my mom, a true fighter who has tackled each challenge head on. The pneumonia is now cleared up, symptoms from COVID are starting to heal, and scans show no signs of cancer. We are optimistic that circumstances can only go up from here.

While our problem is with the system, it’s not with the doctors and nurses who have been phenomenal throughout the entire journey. They work in an environment that is underappreciated, understaffed, and underfunded. A special thanks goes out to Dr. Graham Cook, Dr. Reena Goindi, and nurses Aiden and Sophia from the sixth floor.

It’s up to all of us to protect our loved ones. Mask up in hospitals, do your part to not spread infection, and remember that while COVID might not have the same impact on most of us as it did in March 2020, for some it can still be fatal. Thanks to everyone for their well wishes and support over such a grueling time. 

Charlie Senack is a freelance journalist in Ottawa and editor of the Kitchissippi Times. His work has appeared in the Barrhaven Independent and the Manotick Messenger for the past seven years. He is a journalism student at Carleton University.