When Anissa Khan’s father starting feeling sick, she immediately told him to go get tested for COVID-19.
Khan had already tested positive herself, and her mother was quite ill with the virus too.
“He said that he felt like he’s coming down with something … I had originally tested positive before him and I told him go get tested because mine did not feel anything like what I’ve heard from other people,” she said.
Rodney Birjah’s test came back positive and his symptoms were becoming severe.
“On day 8 he was feeling tired more, he was labouring in his breath… I said, we need to call the ambulance … My mom was already in the hospital at this time so I said let’s just get ahead of the game,” she recalled.
Once admitted, Birjah’s condition deteriorated and he had to be intubated.
“He had a condition we call ARDS, or acute respiratory distress syndrome, and subsequently he had really profound needs for oxygen, really stiff lungs and required a prolonged course on the ventilator,” said Dr. Martin Betts, medical director and chief of critical care for Scarborough Health Network.
“A healthy man of his age by all intents and purposes that just got struck with this and had a much more severe course than most would,” said Betts. “As much as one tries to restrict to a small bubble, having to get groceries, having to get gas for your vehicles, having to help support grandchildren so parents can go to work, it could be any one of those interactions that can cause this.”
This meant both of Khan’s parents were in the intensive care unit with severe cases of COVID-19 — especially ironic, given Khan is the safety specialist for Trillium Health Partners’ Mississauga Hospital.
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In that role, she is responsible for ensuring front-line health-care staff have adequate supplies and personal protective equipment, and that they are following safety protocols amid the COVID-19 pandemic.
“Here I am pushing staff at work to be safe, not to get it. Lo and behold my family end up getting it,” she said.
Sadly, only one of her parents would survive.
At 65, her mother, Marilyn Birjah died of COVID-19.
“It was very difficult, and the next morning we get the phone call from the ICU physician saying, ‘You know what, we have to intubate your dad,’” she recalled.
Rodney Birjah was unaware his wife had died.
More than two weeks later, on his 70th birthday, he required a tracheotomy.
“Losing mom, and then hanging on desperately that dad won’t be another one gone,” said Khan.
Fortunately, he began improving.
Then eventually he started asking questions.
“He was starting to ask about mom, how is she doing, where is she,” recalled Khan.
So she and her sister needed to share the heartbreaking news with their father that their mother did not survive.
“It was a shocker,” she said.
The tube now removed from his neck, Birjah is on the slow road to recovery. Soon he will be released from hospital and enter a rehab facility.
“I take it one day at a time… I didn’t realize I was here so long,” he said.
His voice still weak, Birjah wanted to share a message about his family’s journey with COVID-19.
“This is real, it happened to me, it happened to my wife,” he said.
For Khan, whose focus is on ensuring the safety of front-line health-care staff, seeing her own family struggle has been hard.
“I never thought I’d be here in a million years and here I am … In a snap of a finger things can change very, very quickly for you,” she said. “We need to seriously stop the spread, stop the dying and take this seriously.”
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