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‘She’s a hero’: Family mourns health care worker who died after contracting COVID-19

Even in her last days before COVID-19 overcame her, Arlene Reid was still trying to be positive.

“I’m going to get better,” she’d say to her daughter, Adriana Townsend. “Mommy is going to be OK. I’m going to walk away from this.”

Instead, Reid died in a bedroom in her daughter’s Brampton, Ont., home on Monday, as Townsend frantically performed CPR while waiting for paramedics to arrive.

Reid, a 51-year-old personal support worker (PSW), is the third Ontario health care worker known to have died after contracting COVID-19. Townsend said her mother had no previously diagnosed health conditions.

Now, Reid’s five children and three grandsons will have to figure out how to go on without a woman the family revered as its rock.

“Seeing my mom take her last breath, that’s something I just can’t get out of my head,” Townsend told CBC News.

“I’m just at a loss.”

Reid was a PSW with the Victorian Order of Nurses in Peel Region, which would schedule her to work in multiple care facilities or individual client homes.

Reid was tested for COVID-19 on April 17, and received word she was positive on April 20, Townsend said, adding that a public health nurse instructed her mother to go home, self-isolate and take Tylenol.

Adriana Townsend, left, with her mother, Reid. (Submitted by Antoniette Bryden)

Reid was living with two of her daughters and her son — but one of her daughters, Antoniette Bryden, has cancer. Reid didn’t want to put her at risk, so she began staying with Townsend. Reid isolated in her home, and Townsend would care for her mother using gloves and a mask.

For most of the week she was there, Reid had a bad cough, shortness of breath and a high fever, her daughter said.

In the last couple of days before she died, the cough subsided.

“But her breathing was really bad, and she always complained about having chest pains,” Townsend said.

Her last breaths

Then, just after midnight on Monday, Reid’s condition rapidly declined. She said she couldn’t breathe and asked her daughter to call 911.

That was the moment Townsend knew things weren’t going to be OK.

“She just stopped breathing. Her heart stopped,” she said. “I had to pull her off the bed.”

By the time paramedics got into the room, Townsend was already doing CPR on her mother, trying to bring her back.

They worked on her for about 20 minutes, Townsend said, but they couldn’t save her.

The paramedics left not long after, she said.

“They just told us we’d have to get someone to get her, like a funeral home to pick her body up,” Townsend said. A police officer helped arrange that, but the body wasn’t retrieved for another four hours or so.

“The breathing took the best of her,” Townsend said. She says she is not displaying any coronavirus symptoms but is now trying to get tested.

Union pushes for increased protections

SEIU Healthcare, a union that represents workers in long-term care homes, first reported Reid’s death on Wednesday.

“The tragic death of our union sister is the second loss of a personal support worker (PSW) in as many weeks as a result of ongoing failures to protect health care workers during COVID-19,” SEIU president Sharleen Stewart said in a statement. Another personal support worker from Markham, Ont., died earlier this month.

The union said in the statement that PSWs are not being properly protected during the pandemic.

“From day one of this emergency, health and safety protections, PPE protocols and government directives have insufficiently protected PSWs from ongoing threats, whether they work in home care, long-term care or hospitals,” Stewart wrote.

Neither the Victorian Order of Nurses nor the province immediately responded to requests for comment.

Reid had been living with two of her daughters and her son in Peel Region, west of Toronto, but then went to stay at Townsend’s home, where she self-isolated. (Submitted by Antoniette Bryden)

Gloria Turney, an Ontario health care worker who grew up with Reid in Jamaica, says she too wants to see more protections for PSWs.

“We go into the unknown every single day. You never know what you’re going to face,” she said.

Now in mourning, Reid’s daughters describe her as a phenomenal, amazing woman who loved her family, with a vibrant smile that lit up every room she walked into.

Daughter Shay-Ann Bryden says the family is now wracked with a host of complicated feelings.

“Of course we’re going to be angry, we’ve lost our mom,” she said.

“But at the same time, she lost her life taking care of people, and it’s something that she dedicated her life to doing. So she is a hero, and should be hailed as one.”


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