TORONTO — When Cathy Parkes had to move her father Paul Parkes into a long-term care home in late 2019, she did her homework. She read public inspection reports and took tours of the homes in her area.
Five of the seven homes she had to choose from had waiting lists eight to 10 years long, though, and she was in a hurry, Parkes told HuffPost Canada.
Paul, who was 86, needed to be moved urgently because he required more care after a series of bad falls at his retirement home, including one that left him with 19 stitches.
“We didn’t really have a choice,” Parkes said. “He just ended up in Orchard Villa.”
She knew there were issues at the home in her Pickering, Ont. neighbourhood after reading reports on the Ministry of Long-Term Care website. One report from July 2015 was particularly worrisome for Parkes.
It said that a resident, who had a cognitive impairment and was at high risk for falls, had been found injured “on the floor in a pool of blood.” Staff did not assess or document the person’s injuries properly or call the on-call doctor, the report said. When an inspector visited to follow up on the incident, they saw the same resident’s alarm go off eight times without anyone coming to their aid.
There were other reports, too.
In March 2018, an inspector reported that a patient hadn’t been given their medication for four days straight. In April 2019, an inspector found that most of the bathrooms at Orchard Villa didn’t have any towels. An inspector reported in July 2019 that staff did not immediately call a doctor after a resident got hurt and complained for hours of severe pain. And in December 2019, the home was warned that it had failed to protect residents from abuse at the hands of its staff.
“I knew there was a problem,” Parkes said. “But, the thought that I was down the street and could be there at a moment’s notice, that’s sort of what made it OK. And who expected COVID and being locked out?”
“I don’t need to wonder if my father suffered, because I know that he did.”
She says the Ontario government has a serious communications problem if it is surprised by what the Canadian Armed Forces (CAF) found at the home in early May — that it was infested with cockroaches, staff were not following infection-control practices, residents were being left in soiled diapers and one person choked to death while being fed lying down.
For weeks before the military’s report was made public on May 26, Parkes and other family members tried to warn the government that the home needed help with COVID-19 and that they believed patients were being neglected.
“The military report ... confirmed my worst fears,” Parkes said during a virtual press conference with NDP Leader Andrea Horwath, two days after the findings were announced.
“I don’t need to wonder if my father suffered, because I know that he did.”
Watch: Premier Doug Ford responds to military’s report on long-term care homes. Story continues after video.
Orchard Villa’s executive director Jason Gay said he could not respond to most of HuffPost’s questions for privacy reasons.
“We appreciate that this is a difficult time for Ms. Parkes and are very sorry for her loss,” Gay said in a statement sent by email.
“We are investigating the issues raised by the military report. We welcomed the military into our home and appreciate their willingness and commitment to assist us in caring for our residents during this pandemic.”
‘Something was very wrong’
Paul was treated “wonderfully” for two weeks after moving into Orchard Villa in November 2019, Parkes said. And then things went downhill.
Sometimes when she visited, Parkes found her father hadn’t been fed or was only half-dressed. He got multiple urinary tract infections and a serious kidney infection. Parkes complained to the director of care after a staff member refused to help her father lie down even though he couldn’t lift his legs, she said. The staff member also threw a blanket in Paul’s face when he said he was cold, she said.
Parkes says she was told the employee would be assigned to a different ward.
“I was really surprised. I thought, ‘Is this the way they do things? Is this protocol?’”
That was in December. On April 10, Parkes learned of a COVID-19 outbreak at the home. No one called to inform her — she says she found out by checking the Durham Region public health website herself.
She called Paul that day and he sounded tired. The next day, he sounded like he was having trouble breathing.
Parkes says she called Orchard Villa April 11 and a staff member told her: “We have no PPE [personal protective equipment]. We have no staff.”
“That was my first clue that something was very wrong.”
On April 13, she insisted her father be swabbed for COVID-19 and was assured he would be.
She also wrote an email to Premier Doug Ford, Health Minister Christine Elliott, MPP Peter Bethlenfalvy and Pickering Mayor David Ryan.
“I am imploring you on behalf of my father ... please help.”
“My father, who suffers from hydrocephalus, cancer and diabetes, is normally cognizant and happy, but over the last two days has been unable to speak, weak and lethargic. Each time I talk to him I can hear his lungs crinkling and his breathing has been laboured; yesterday I was notified that he has a fever,” Parkes wrote in her email.
“After speaking with the department heads at Orchard Villa I was informed that they have plenty of PPE available, however after speaking to the on-floor staff it was indicated to me that they do not have enough PPE. Many of the staff members have tested COVID-19 positive and are now in quarantine. One staff member told me that they are down to half their staff or less,” she said.
“I am imploring you on behalf of my father ... please help,” she wrote.
Parkes says she heard back from the mayor that day and didn’t hear anything from Ford or Elliott for weeks. When MPP Bethlenfalvy called four days later, Paul was already dead.
He is one of the 79 people who have lost their lives during the COVID-19 outbreak at Orchard Villa’s long-term care and retirement home. The facility has seen more deaths than any other long-term care home in Ontario. At least 56 others have died in homes owned by the same company, Southbridge Care Homes.
Orchard Villa’s executive director said in his statement that the home currently has an adequate supply of PPE and staff have been trained to use it properly. He also said the home appreciates the help of Lakeridge Health, the hospital network that was ordered to help Orchard Villa with its outbreak April 21.
“We called for help early and often and are very appreciative that Lakeridge Health answered our call,” Gay said.
“We currently anticipate that the COVID-19 outbreak at Orchard Villa will end in both the long term care home and the retirement home in the next week or two if no new cases arise,” Gay said.
Lakeridge Health brought in dozens of extra workers, decontaminated the building, added new infection-control measures and trained staff on how to use PPE after it was brought in on April 23, a spokesperson for the hospital network told HuffPost.
“Since late April, staffing levels have substantially increased. Today, staffing is at 100 per cent of the complement required for the number of residents in the home and has stabilized,” Sharon Navarro said by email.
‘He put his kids before everything else’
Paul William Russel Parkes was born in Toronto, raised in Dunnville, Ont. and spent his childhood summers in northern Ontario while his grandfather worked on Highway 11. He raised his three children in North York, Ont. and worked for 40 years as a sales manager for the T. Eaton Company, also known as Eaton’s, in Scarborough.
Since his death on April 15, Parkes says she’s heard countless stories about how her father launched the careers of his younger Eaton’s colleagues and looked out for the other residents at Orchard Villa.
“My father quietly cared for everyone around him,” she said. “He had a big laugh and a really big personality.”
Paul tended to “every bruise and scrape” his kids suffered while they grew up and cheered them on through college and university, Parkes said. A devout Christian and avid gardener, Paul took pictures of every flower he grew. He loved spending time outdoors with his four grandchildren near the water or flying kites. He was a lifelong conservative and voted for Premier Ford in the 2018 provincial election.
“He loved his family. He put his kids before everything else.”
Parkes says she was never notified that Paul had tested positive for COVID-19. She says she found out on May 6, three weeks after his death, after requesting his Orchard Villa medical records.
A public health document reviewed by HuffPost shows his COVID-positive status was confirmed on April 14, the day before he died.
Parkes says she asked the same day that Paul be transferred to hospital or be given oxygen but a staff member at the home told her over the phone he “didn’t qualify.”
Those were some of the concerns she relayed to MPP Bethlenfalvy when they spoke April 17.
“Why wasn’t there something done then and there, considering the urgency of the matter?”
The minister offered condolences, Parkes said, and they discussed the issues at Orchard Villa. She says he told her that Paul should have been given oxygen and taken to a hospital.
“Why wasn’t there something done then and there, considering the urgency of the matter?” she asked.
Bethlenfalvy’s press secretary Sebastian Skamski told HuffPost the minister was not available for an interview. He pointed to Bethlenfalvy’s tweets on COVID-19 and a statement he is quoted in from Lakeridge Health.
“This is a very tragic, difficult time for the residents, families, and staff at Orchard Villa. My heart breaks for them,” Bethlenfalvy said in the statement. “We have been working with our health partners to redeploy resources that will enable Lakeridge Health to address infection control and resident care at Orchard Villa immediately.”
Orchard Villa’s statement did not address HuffPost’s questions about whether families were ever notified of the outbreak or their relatives’ diagnoses.
‘Thanks for your email’
Almost three weeks after her initial email, Parkes says she received a “stock email with generic terms” from Ford’s office.
“Thanks for your email about protecting long-term care residents and staff during the COVID-19 outbreak. I appreciate hearing your concerns,” the May 1 email said.
It also listed measures in the government’s action plan for long-term care in bullet points.
“I’ve replied to that and said, ‘Unacceptable,’” Parkes said. “And also too late because now we’re a week over my father having passed.”
She wants to know why something wasn’t done the day she spoke to Bethlenfalvy.
“I can’t imagine why that wouldn’t have been run up … I wasn’t the only one raising the flag that day. There were other family members who were bombarding everyone they could think of.”
Bethlenfalvy told Parkes that Orchard Villa had only reached out for help from the government April 17, the day they spoke on the phone, she says.
A spokesperson for Southbridge Care did not respond to a follow-up question about the date Orchard Villa first asked the provincial government for help.
“So they spent a week basically with no PPE, no staff and hadn’t asked for help,” Parkes said.
“[Bethlenfalvy] should have taken it directly to Ford and they should have had … at least more nursing staff in to help.”
On April 22, Ontario announced it had asked the federal government to send troops into five hard-hit homes. Although it did not name the homes at the time, Orchard Villa made the list. The soldiers arrived in early May.
‘I was up all night’
When the CAF report was published more than three weeks later, Ford suggested he hadn’t been aware how dire the situation was.
“The public needs to know exactly what I found out yesterday,” he said. “Yesterday afternoon … I got briefed on this. It was gut wrenching … I was up all night thinking of this.”
He called the military’s findings “disgusting” and “appalling” and said he had trouble getting through its report.
“It was the worst report, the most heart-wrenching report I have ever read in my entire life.”
As he made those comments, Parkes and 69 other family members were still waiting on a reply to a letter they sent him nearly one month before.
In an April 29 email to the premier, families said they had been “kept in the dark” and had evidence their relatives were being neglected.
“We have heard numerous rumours and hearsay about staff shortages, food shortages, lack of care and unsafe health practices,” the letter said. “We would like to verify what is true and what is rumour, but we have had no verifiable information on any account. Those of us who have chosen to send our families to the hospital have received horrible reports regarding their physical state beyond which even COVID-19 could have induced.”
The families listed their demands: that they immediately start receiving information about their loved ones’ health; that residents be tested for COVID-19 and the results be shared with families; that staff make sure residents receive three meals a day, water and be bathed; and that the government open a “full investigation” into practices at Orchard Villa.
On May 5, the families started a “phone blitz,” Parkes said. They took turns calling Ford’s Etobicoke, Ont. constituency office every hour for three days straight.
A staff member emailed back to ask what their letter was about and said they would flag it to the premier’s team, Parkes said.
“And then we never heard anything.”
An answer arrived 33 days later.
“What has occurred at Orchard Villa and other long-term care homes across the province is tragic. I offer my deepest condolences to you, your families and everyone affected,” Ford told the families by email June 1.
“What has occurred at Orchard Villa and other long-term care homes across the province is tragic.”
“The COVID-19 pandemic exposed some very deep cracks in the long-term care system – a very broken system that our government inherited after decades of neglect. We are committed to fixing this system and ensuring our seniors are receiving a standard of care they deserve.”
A spokesperson for Premier Ford did not respond to a request for comment. A spokesperson for Health Minister Elliott deferred to a spokesperson for the minister of long-term care. A spokesperson for the minister of long-term care did not directly answer questions about why the government took so long to respond to Parkes’ email and the families’ letter.
Minister of Long-Term Care Merrilee Fullerton’s spokesperson said the government is “working around the clock” to keep residents at Orchard Villa safe.
The Canadian Armed Forces stayed in the home throughout May to provide resident care, cook for and feed residents and screen for the virus, Gillian Sloggett told HuffPost by email.
“Our government’s focus is on fighting this virus and keeping residents and staff at Orchard Villa and in all long-term care homes safe,” she said.
“The majority of the home’s staff is back to work, and the home is in constant contact with those that are ill or self-isolating. All COVID-19 negative residents are being re-tested weekly and to date, all tests have returned negative. There are no PPE shortages reported at this time.”
The military left the home on June 4, according to an update sent to families Friday that was shared with HuffPost. Lakeridge Health continues to oversee the daily operations of the home, the email said. Residents are now allowed to go outside for walks and will soon be able to eat together with physical distancing measures in place.
‘Kind of a nightmare’
Parkes and her family are suing Southbridge Care for $1 million in an individual claim. Her family’s suit is one of about 25 claims related to coronavirus deaths at Orchard Villa that lawyer Melissa Miller expects to file.
“Some of my clients had window visits and could see that their relative looked awful and knew they weren’t getting fed properly or proper hydration,” Miller told HuffPost. “And some of them were hearing from their loved one that it was kind of a nightmare over there.”
Parkes and her relatives allege in the lawsuit Orchard Villa told them the home had an outbreak of the flu — not COVID-19 — on April 6 and that even after a resident had tested positive for the novel coronavirus, patients were eating together in the dining room.
“The Defendants failed to protect the residents of the home, including Paul through inadequate preventative and responsive measures to the COVID-19 outbreak,” the statement of claim says.
“The Plaintiffs plead that Paul’s death occurred as a direct result of the negligence, breach of contract, and/or breach of fiduciary duty of the Defendants and their agents, servants and/or employees.”
“This is not a COVID problem only.”
Another law firm has proposed a $40-million class action against the company.
Miller said the problems at Orchard Villa pre-date the coronavirus pandemic.
“This is not a COVID problem only,” she said. “What we’ve seen happen at Orchard Villa, what we’ve seen happen [with] some of these other outbreaks of COVID in the nursing homes, is an absolute direct consequence of our very broken long-term care system.”
Orchard Villa said in its statement it is aware of Parkes’ claim and will respond through the courts.
Parkes said the only thing the government can do for her now is call a full public inquiry into COVID-19’s spread through long-term care.
She said she does not trust the commission the government has already promised because many of the big for-profit providers have hired lobbyists with close ties to Ford’s government.
“In this moment, when we are all asking ‘why?,’ when government officials are making promises, saying the right words and showing emotions, there’s one element that’s been missing,” she said at the virtual press conference.
“If everyone could stop talking for a moment and listen, then you will hear the voices that have been speaking all of this time.
“Those of us who have gone unheard, who have been left in the dark, who have been fighting to save the people we love.
“You would hear us all say the same thing with one united voice: Lift the roof off these homes and let us look inside together.
“Hear us when we say we need a public inquiry, we need a criminal investigation, we need those who are still alive to be taken care of now, we need an end to for-profit long-term care homes in Ontario.”