‘I don’t want to see him die’: Winnipeg woman fighting to visit COVID-positive husband in ICU

By | April 18, 2020

The wife of a man in intensive care with COVID-19 is fighting for some compassion on a hospital policy that is keeping her from her husband at a time she says he needs her most.

Genevieve Funk-Unrau, 59, believes the sound of her voice and her touch will help bring her 66-year-old husband Neil out of his coma, but she’s not allowed to visit him at the St. Boniface Hospital intensive care unit where he’s being cared for. 

“It’s so hard to be away from him while he suffers through this on his own. I know the staff are wonderful, they’re awesome, but they’re not me. And I think he needs just my help there. We’re pretty connected and it’s super hard. And being here without him is really hard,” she said. 

While Neil’s lungs have healed considerably since he was admitted two weeks ago, she said he hasn’t woken up as expected after he was taken off of sedation medication.

“They would like to take him off the ventilator once he wakes up. That’s why I’m just thinking, what he really needs is for me to be there to help encourage him to wake up, to be part of this healing team so he can come home to us.”

Neil and Genevieve Funk-Unrau during their trip to Cuba in March. Both tested positive for COVID-19 soon after returning to Winnipeg. Genevieve recovered and is lobbying health officials to allow her to visit Neil, who is now in a coma. (Genevieve Funk-Unrau)

The couple — Genevieve, a social worker, and Neil, a Menno Simons College faculty member specializing in conflict resolution   — returned from a trip to Cuba on March 15. They have two adult daughters. 

Genevieve was given a test immediately for the virus, which she needed before she could return to work, which came back positive on March 17. She recovered at home while continuing to self-isolate. When her husband tested positive on March 27, he had a fever and low oxygen levels, so he was admitted to St. Boniface Hospital. 

Public health nurses told Genevieve she had fully recovered on March 31, a couple of days after Neil was transferred to ICU and put on a ventilator. She hasn’t had any symptoms for more than two weeks, but says the ICU doesn’t allow visitors unless it’s for a compassionate situation where someone is dying.

“He’s not going to give me COVID. I’m not going to give him COVID. So it’s a moot point. And I just want that changed because there’s a policy there that doesn’t apply to our situation,” she said, adding no one can replace her unique role in his healing.

Neil Funk-Unrau during his trip to Cuba. After testing positive for COVID-19 on March 27, he developed a fever and had trouble breathing, leading to his admission to St. Boniface Hospital. (Genevieve Funk-Unrau)

“Just being a presence there. We’re quite attached, we’ve been married for 34 years. I think just having my voice there, my encouragement, my touch will just help him to remember what to come back for. And to really fight this and fight his way out of this fog.”

She said the health-care team keeps her updated on Neil’s condition by phone every day, and doctors told her that he may have had a series of strokes, something they’re testing for.

She wrote letters to the province’s chief provincial public health officer, Dr. Brent Roussin, and Health Minister Cameron Friesen on Friday, asking that an exception be made in the policy banning hospital visitors during COVID-19, but has not received a reply. She said health-care workers understand and are empathetic, but recite the same policy to her whenever she asks to see her husband.

The Funk-Unraus have been married for 34 years and have two adult daughters. (Genevieve Funk-Unrau)

“I just want them to not just tell me again why I can’t go. I want them to look at how I can go and write some policies, protocols, whatever, and to address the needs of those who have recovered and now need to see their loved ones,” she said, adding she understands the safety reasons for the policy, but doesn’t want others to be in the same situation down the road. She would take the same precautions as health-care staff with hand-washing and personal protective equipment, she said, and would not come into contact with any other patients.

In a statement, a Winnipeg Regional Health Authority spokesperson said that they can’t discuss individual patients with members of the public, including the circumstances of whether they can or cannot have particular visitors and what might prevent a particular person from visiting. 

Chief nursing officer Lanette Siragusa has said exceptions to current visitor restrictions will be made for compassionate reasons on a case-by-case basis, as determined by a facility manager.

“I think in my sense, I would feel that they’re being compassionate if they let me go in now. And see my husband now. Even before he’s dying. I don’t want to see him die,” Genevieve said.

Genevieve Funk-Unrau says the health-care workers tending to her husband have been attentive and empathetic, but they haven’t been able to allow her to visit her husband. She hopes officials will make an exception in her case on compassionate grounds. (Tyson Koschik/CBC)

A nurse held the phone up to her husband’s ear during a recent video chat, she said, and his face reacted when he heard her voice. 

Neil’s the mediator, she said, but she’s the fighter, and she won’t let him die without doing everything she could to save him. 

“If there’s not a risk, then be compassionate and let us work on this. Make me an example, whatever, test me to make sure I’m OK. They need to not just hide behind [that] language and really show us, what does that mean,” she said. 

“What he really needs is for me to be there.”

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