← Articles28 April 2020

For mum, Covid-19 is déjà vu

For mum, Covid-19 is déjà vu

This story was written by Colleen Evans, whose mother lives at Arvida’s Cascades community in Hamilton. Colleen describes the parallels between our current Covid-19 situation and the hospital isolation required by childhood infectious diseases when her mum was a child.

Days before the national lockdown came into effect, New Zealand rest homes were already applying strict non-visitation rules to isolate their residents from the Covid-19 threat. We could only meet face-to-face with our 91-year-old mum through a closed external window at Cascades Retirement Home in Hamilton, and we struggled to hear each other through the glass.

The separation is breaking our hearts, but mum is quite accepting of the situation and calm. When we mention the lockdown during our phone chats, she takes on a convincing tone of reassurance and tells me it will all be worthwhile. “It’s the best thing if it’s going to stop us getting sick,” she says, “and it won’t last forever”. I can’t help wondering if she’s drawing on strengths she developed as a child in the infectious disease years of the 1930s.

Ironically, mum’s now experiencing similar scenes to those she saw in the isolation ward of the children’s hospital where she battled scarlet fever. For months she only saw her mother once a day, waving through the glass ward windows.

Joan Benson, our mum, was born an only child in Leicester, England. Her parents and a childless uncle and aunt spoiled her from day one. Her mother worked full-time, giving her a lifestyle that was expected to keep her healthy. But she fell prey to many of the infectious diseases of the time, including diphtheria, scarlet fever, mumps and whooping cough. She remembers her aunts teasing her: “They said I was so spoiled, I even wanted every disease going around”.

Now Alzheimer’s is starting to take its toll and mum’s memories are unreliable. But she still vividly recalls her childhood hospitalisation. “At night it was the worst,” she says. Her eyes tell me she feels as much as she remembers from this time. “I’m not sure how old I was, but I remember crying every night when I was put to bed. The nurse would come and ask me what was wrong, and I’d tell her I wanted my mum. She always said, your mum isn’t coming and you must just go to sleep. Then she’d leave me crying.”

In years gone by, my grandma told me how hard it was for her on the other side of the window. I recall her saying that she would go to the hospital every day to see mum, trying hard to keep a smile on her face and waving eagerly, so as not to upset her daughter, then cry all the way home.

Often there would be a change of faces behind the window, because children died overnight and new cases were admitted. One day, when grandma went to the window where a group of mothers were already milling around to catch their children’s attention, she looked for mum and couldn’t see her. It was a heart-dropping moment, as she thought the worst. Imagine what it would be like thinking your child may have died overnight as you slept at home. Grandma panicked and went looking for a nurse, who said her child had been moved to another ward. Mum recalls the day the nurses moved her and how she worried that her mother would never find her. That was the worst moment for both of them.

I can relate to grandma’s story now. It’s me crying this time, after leaving mum on the other side of the window.

There’s no doubt mum has held the trauma of those times in her heart throughout the years. The stress of having separation forced upon her, and fear of having to suffer and cope on her own, has given her a scare she won’t be able to forget. But it’s also taught her resilience and faith in the outcome. From her hospital bed as a little girl, she developed confidence in her ability to get through it. She has first-hand insight into how this Covid-19 crisis may end up. And perhaps as a result of that, she is a behaviour role model; content to be confined and to calmly embrace the necessary measures.

Cascades rest home diligently closed its doors to anyone but residents and staff about a week before New Zealand went into lockdown. Leading up to that, they had already prohibited anyone who had travelled overseas in the prior 14 days, or who was exhibiting any Covid-19 symptoms, from entering. And now, with most of NZ’s deaths originating from rest homes, operators will need to keep isolation rules tight to ensure the safety of residents and staff. It’s not likely that relatives will be able to visit their loved ones any time soon. It helps to know that mum is so content to be there.

In the 1930s, germ theory was relatively new - less than 100 years old. Pasteur and Koch found in 1860 that disease was caused by germs and encouraged hand washing after touching money. Quarantine was then made the primary tactic to control the spread of disease, although it was first used in Italy in the 14th century to limit spread of the plague. Vaccines originated in Turkey during 1715, when they were used against smallpox. In these early cases of immunisation, between 2-3% died as a result of the vaccine.

Quarantine, hand washing and vaccines are still the world’s best chance against communicable diseases. We got this!