Coronavirus: Daughters denied chance to visit dying father

Two daughters who weren't allowed to see their elderly father in hospital because of lockdown restrictions say they considered barging their way past security to see him in his dying days. 

Otaki man Ken Barker, 94, died at home in early April, losing his fight with melanoma. But Tania and Kim Barker believe his life was cut short after he spent 10 days in Palmerston North Hospital without any visitors being allowed to see him.

"A wonderful man, he was just such a gentleman," Tania - his longtime caregiver - told The AM Show on Thursday. "A great sense of humour, and still sharp as a tack at 94. Very much into his rugby."

Ken had been fighting cancer for over a year when his condition deteriorated in March, just after the country went into level 4 lockdown in an attempt to stop the spread of COVID-19. 

"We called the ambulance because he wasn't able to walk," said Tania. "We couldn't safely get him to his room or the toilet or anything... he'd had a lot of breathing problems."

Over the next week-and-a-half, the only contact Tania and Kim had with him was a few short conversations each day - never in the same room. 

"We weren't included in any of the consultations," said Tania. "The fact we weren't there, he was confused, his hearing aids had stopped working, he wasn't eating properly. The fact we couldn't be there to support him, to understand what was going on, really impacted his care... he was turning down medical interventions he would have chosen to have because he was confused."

Security guards were posted on the door to stop them - or any other visitors - from going in. Tania says initially she was told they'd been allowed to visit him, as they'd been in the same 'bubble' before his hospitalisation. The first Sunday after the lockdown began, Kim was allowed in. But on Monday, everything changed.

"I sat down in the car outside the hospital for about four or five hours ringing everyone, trying to get in... There was no consideration of the circumstances - the fact we were in his bubble, the fact we self-isolated," said Tania. "We were adhering to the rules, we weren't a risk to anyone. I wasn't sick. She wasn't interested at all in that."

Tania and Kim Barker.
Tania and Kim Barker. Photo credit: The AM Show

Eventually, they made the tough call to bring Ken home. 

"We had to make the choice between him having the monitoring and hospital-level care that he probably still needed, and him wanting to have his close family around him while he was dying," said Tania. 

Their neighbours stood outside and clapped as he was carried inside on a stretcher by ambulance staff.

She told him they'd go "to the papers" with their story to try and effect change.

"Well done, kiddo," he replied. 

"We don't want any other families to go through what we have because it's so cruel," Kim told The AM Show. 

"We want more leadership on this from the top.," added Tania. "We don't want it just to be at the whims of the ward nurse, who gets to see people." 

While the rules do give local medical staff discretion, health law expert Ron Paterson told The AM Show they've been interpreted in many places as a "blanket order".

"There's discretion to be exercised, and the discretion was not being properly exercised in that case... Every DHB had this 'no visitors allowed' - in fact the fine print said there was some discretion, and charge nurses were allowed to exercise that discretion and let people in."

Ron Paterson.
Ron Paterson. Photo credit: The AM Show

His own mother was admitted to Middlemore Hospital during the lockdown. His experience was markedly different to that endured by the Barkers.

"Thankfully at Middlemore Hospital, where Mum and I are reasonably well-known to them, they did exercise that discretion. They showed compassion and they recognised that when you're a caregiver for a family member, you're not just a visitor - you're a vital part of the care team as well. You're there to help with the care, but you're also able to provide comfort. 

"As long as they go through the proper checks - screening, are you from the same bubble? - then they should be able to show some compassion."

Paterson, who led an inquiry into New Zealand's mental health services a couple of years ago, fears there will be an increase in depression and other mental health issues if people aren't allowed to say goodbye and grieve properly. 

Director-General of Health Ashley Bloomfield earlier this week announced a review into how exemptions from visitor restrictions were being handled after a judge overruled a Ministry of Health decision that stopped a man from visiting his dying father. 

"It's a basic human right, it's a legal right recognised in New Zealand in our code of patients' rights," said Paterson. 

"It is shocking and it's heartbreaking to hear what Tania and Kim went through." 

Tania told NZME in April despite her own family's predicament, she was still proud of New Zealand's efforts to stamp out COVID-19.