Volunteer dies of COVID-19 as daughter races across Canada to be near her

Last week, Pam Smith set out on a race against time driving from B.C. to Ontario, hoping to be near her mother as she took her last breaths.

She didn’t make it. Jean Pollock, a frequent visitor and volunteer at the Pinecrest Nursing Home in Bobcaygeon, Ont., that is now the centre of a COVID-19 outbreak, died at Ross Memorial Hospital in nearby Lindsay on Saturday morning. She had just turned 82.

Pollock’s coronavirus diagnosis and rapid decline is emblematic of the profound impact this pandemic is having on families across the world.

“We all have stories of our mothers, and I couldn’t fit my mother’s life or her impact on me into a short interview,” Smith said on CBC Radio’s Metro Morning Tuesday. “But suffice to say, she was a really amazing woman.

“She was my person, and she’d always been that, because I’d never known my life without her.”

Smith and her partner left Vancouver on Monday at 3 a.m., not long after finding out Pollock had tested positive for COVID-19. Pollock’s 91-year-old husband, Ted, lives at Pinecrest, and so she was there daily.

While on the road, Smith says she called the hospital every two hours, desperate for updates — but also anxious before every call, not knowing what news would come. Time was not on her side, as the roughly 4,300-kilometre trek takes days. 

Even if they had made it, Smith wouldn’t have been able to actually see her mother in person, as visitors are now restricted in most Ontario hospitals.

“I just thought if I made it back in time, just so she knew I was here, it might have made her feel less worried,” Smith said.

One last ‘I love you’

Pollock had chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) and was on oxygen, so Smith was only able to talk to her once on the phone before leaving.

“She was pretty afraid, and she was really struggling,” Smith said.

“She said, ‘I’m going downhill quick.’ So I told her that I loved her.”

LISTEN: Pam Smith talks about losing her mother

Pam Smith drove from Vancouver to Pinecrest Nursing Home in Bobcaygeon to try to be near her mother, who contracted Covid-19 as a volunteer at the facility, and passed away from the disease on Saturday. 12:35

When Smith called the hospital on Friday, her mother was non-responsive. She says staff held the phone to her mother’s ear and said she opened her eyes.

That night, Smith was told, Pollock kept pulling her oxygen mask off as if she didn’t want it anymore.

“We knew it wouldn’t be long,” Smith said.

Several residents of the Pinecrest Nursing Home in Bobcaygeon, Ont., have died after contracting COVID-19. (Evan Mitsui/CBC)

Then Smith called on Saturday morning.

“When the nurse came on the line she said, ‘I was just with your mom and … I was with her when she took her last breath.'”

Pollock died at 8:05 a.m.

‘She was a dynamo’

Smith had a lot of time to think while on the road, and says she saw the whole country through her mother’s eyes as a series of paintings.

From childhood on, she remembered her mother painting all the time. Her easel went everywhere with their family during summers in Bobcaygeon. That’s where Pollock eventually opened up an antique shop when she retired, and also did floral arrangements.

Beauty was innate to Pollock, her daughter said.

“She was a dynamo, that’s for sure.”

Pollock was from Toronto, but had been living in Bobcaygeon since she was in her 50s, her daughter says. (Submitted by Pam Smith)

Pollock’s husband Ted is now in isolation at Pinecrest, where there have been 12 deaths linked to the novel coronavirus so far. Twenty-four staff members have also tested positive, and test results for 10 other staff members are pending, according to the Haliburton, Kawartha, Pine Ridge District Health Unit.

“He’s doing the best as he can be doing. I can’t imagine this is easy for him at all,” Smith said.

Though there have been lots of tears in recent days, Smith has also been heaping praise upon hospital staff, who ensured her mother wasn’t alone when she died.

“I’m surrounded by the most amazing community and family,” she said.

“I feel very sad … but I’m also feeling super loved.”

adam.carter@cbc.ca

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