Michigander Tara Barber was separated from her husband Tom since COVID-19 sent the state into lockdown. Here’s a look into her battle between logic and emotion surrounding her husband’s death.
ANN ARBOR, MI — Ann Arbor resident Tara Barber knows how hard it is to balance emotion with logic when it comes to this pandemic.
It was an especially difficult ongoing struggle when her late husband, Tom, was quarantined in Ann Arbor’s Glacier Hills care and rehabilitation center, where he was receiving ’round-the-clock care for a number of health conditions following a February operation. And that struggle culminated in a brutal shock for Barber when her husband died of COVID-19 alone in St. Joseph’s hospital, even though he had supposedly been recovering in a safe, sterile environment whose employees practiced every precaution.
When Tom was at Glacier Hills from around the end of February through early April, Barber didn’t have a choice in whether or not she visited him and risked exposing him to the coronavirus. On March 13 — just two to three days before Tom was expected to be released to continue his recovery at home — Gov. Whitmer signed an executive order that sent Glacier Hills into lockdown.
Barber told The ’Gander that it was hard to be separated from her husband during his recuperation, but she thought Glacier Hills may be the safest possible environment for his underlying health conditions as COVID-19 started to spread throughout Michigan.
“He was under 24/7 nursing care from people who I was convinced understood sterile routine,” she said. “He had a bed and he was being kept isolated from any outside influences, I thought. So I was going, ‘Okay, this is good, he’s safe.’”
But some Michiganders will have the new option to visit loved ones in nursing homes and long-term care facilities under new orders from the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services (MDHHS). Barber shared her insight on that recent change with The ’Gander.
Inside a Pandemic Nursing Home: Tom and Tara’s Story
Tom’s significant underlying health conditions were cited as a contributing factor toward his April 4 death due to COVID-19. Tom, who had long managed his congestive heart failure and diabetes, had only a five-year life expectancy in 1997. But Tara said when their daughter was born in the mid-’90s, fatherhood infused Tom with the power to defy that prognosis and watch his young family grow up.
But his health continued to decline as he aged. Tom’s diabetic neuropathy aggravated a foot injury caused by a fall in December 2019, and surgery on his foot revealed he was suffering from a related progressive degenerative joint disorder. It was after that surgery, Barber said, that Tom was admitted to Glacier Hills to recover.
It’s not known where Tom picked up the coronavirus. Barber said that from late February to April, he only stepped foot outside of Glacier Hills once, to see his orthopedic surgeon.
“When we got to that office, Tom was wearing a mask,” Barber said. “I went to be with him during the appointment. I was wearing a mask and gloves. The transport guy who took him from Glacier Hills to the office was masked and wearing gloves. Everybody was trying to do what they could. The only person I saw during the entire trip who wasn’t wearing a mask was the surgeon, but he had gloves on and he didn’t get any closer to Tom than his foot.”
Nevertheless, Tom began showing symptoms a couple of weeks after that appointment — but no one suspected he had COVID-19.
“At the time it seemed like that was too long a time for him to have picked it up when he went to see the doctor,” Barber said, “but I suppose it’s possible given what we know now. … But nobody picked up on the fact that — even when he did start showing signs of getting sicker — he was showing COVID-19.”
In fact, Barber said, Glacier Hills staff were talking about sending Tom home around that time, even on lockdown.
“I said, look, I don’t want him to come home without being tested for this because not only would I worry about him, but I’m worried about myself and our daughter,” Barber said. “And the social worker that I was talking to … there was saying, ‘Oh, well, I guess we can see what we can do about that.’ And I never heard anything more about it until he was admitted at St. Joseph’s.”
Tom never did get tested at Glacier Hills, Barber said. Instead, they took a chest X-ray and treated him for bedside pneumonia.
“But then, they were starting to have more and more problems managing the pneumonia, plus the congestive heart failure plus the diabetes.
“Whether or not at that time they suspected that he might have COVID-19, I have no clue. … I wasn’t being talked to by doctors. And the couple of times when I said, ‛Hey, I need to talk to somebody,’ no one would ever get back to me from Glacier Hills. … I was getting most of this second-hand from Tom.”
Tom was moved from Glacier Hills to St. Joseph’s Mercy Hospital on April 3, where Barber said he waited nine hours for a sanitized room. At the hospital, it was confirmed Tom had COVID-19.
His wife got to talk to him on the phone around 3 p.m the next day, April 4.
“I was able to talk to him on the phone and … I told him I loved him,” Barber said. “And he was telling me, ‛Don’t worry. I will come home. I will beat this.’ And other than being a little gaspy, he was coherent. He was, I shouldn’t say eloquent, but certainly articulate. He didn’t sound like a man who was about to die.”
Barber said her husband was found dead in his room at St. Joseph’s a few hours later.
“There was a part of me that wanted to call the hospital and say, ‘You can’t keep me from my husband,’ at which point they would have looked at me and said, ‘Oh yes, we can,’” Barber said. “But I would have tried. But that wasn’t where it seemed to be going.
“And the logical side of me, and I think the logical side of Tom, was saying, stay out of the way, let the hospital and the doctors do their jobs. He’s in the best place he can be at the moment. … And so I made the choice, and the next thing I knew, I got the call from the doctor going, ‘I’m sorry, but he’s gone.’”
But even if hospital staff had anticipated Tom’s death and even if she had been allowed to see him, Barber said she’s not sure she would have made the decision to enter his room, although her heart would have ached to do so. In fact, she said, she’s not even sure whether her husband would have sanctioned it.
“I am one of those people who is fairly analytical, but I also have an emotional side,” she said, “and the emotional side would have cut off my arm to have been with him. He was my husband, he was the love of my life, and he was my best friend. And I would have given anything to have been with him, as horrible as it was to have watched him die. But for him not to have been alone.
“But at the same time, I knew that the thing that he would want me to do the most was to keep our daughter safe and myself safe. And so if I had said something grandiose, like ‘I’m coming in!’ I think he would have said, ‘Oh, hell no, you’re not. Stay home.’ Because even as much as he might’ve wanted to see me, he would have wanted the two of us to stay safe even more.
“So you have the disconnect between the emotional me and the logical me. … Could they have suited me up? Sure, they could have. Would it have kept me safe? Nobody knows. And would that have been worth the potential risk to our daughter? Nobody knows. But I don’t think Tom would have wanted me to take the chance. The emotional part of me wanted to take that chance so much. But the logical part of me said, no, this is too frightening. There’s too much we don’t know. It is not a justifiable risk. I was able to talk to him on the phone and I told him I loved him.”
A Brutal Choice for Michiganders
But some Michiganders now have the option to visit loved ones in nursing homes and long-term care facilities as Michigan eases the visitation restrictions that kept families like Tara and Tom apart by power of executive order.
Just ahead of both Michigan’s 4-month anniversary of the first case within its borders and the state’s highest coronavirus spike since May, Michigan Department of Health and Human Services (MDHHS) Director Robert Gordon signed two epidemic orders that provide for expanded visitations at group facilities.
The orders allow for some visits in long-term care facilities, including nursing homes. They provide exceptions to Gov. Whitmer’s visitation restrictions in limited circumstances as long as the facilities meet specific safety requirements, such as requiring face masks during visits.
One order applies to residential long-term care facilities like Glacier Hills. It allows visits only with residents who are in serious or critical condition or in hospice care, or visits from family members or friends who assist residents with activities of daily living. The order applies in limited circumstances, reports WDIV, and takes into account the importance of compassionate care for Michiganders who have terminal illnesses.
Visits to residents who are in isolation or are otherwise under observation for symptoms of COVID-19 are still prohibited. Still, Barber urges people to weigh emotion against logic before potentially exposing their loved ones to the coronavirus.
It’s an especially necessary approach, Barber said, when considering the fact that there’s so much we still don’t know about this novel virus. She cited new information about how COVID-19 attacks virtually every major system in the human body, and how it could cause brain damage even if patients didn’t show severe respiratory symptoms.
“I have a perspective that not everybody has, because I know everything that happened with Tom,” Barber said, “and as I said, he was being kept in a supposedly safe place, treated by people who supposedly understood sterile precautions and were taking those precautions, and he was still infected and he still died. So I know how insidiously pervasive this virus is and how infectious it is, because I watched Tom’s journey and it still got him.”
The COVID-19 outbreak at Glacier Hills sickened 10 residents and 4 staff besides causing Tom’s death.
“While we are disappointed with this outcome with all of the preventative measures that we implemented, it is far less than what some facilities on the east side of the state are experiencing,” regional vice president Craig Courts wrote in a community letter from facility officials.
MLive reported that Glacier Hills began preventative measures in early March, including strict visitor restrictions, using only one entrance, screening anyone entering the facility, using surgical masks for staff and quarantining any resident who tested positive for the virus to one area.
“Right now I sit back and look at it and go, do I want to play the blame game? No,” Barber said. “It would be an excruciatingly long, bureaucratic, complicated process. And I don’t think that anybody is specifically to blame, not if you look at it in terms of the climate that was going on at the time.
“Ultimately, we were caught up in the forces of a pandemic of a disease that nobody had seen before and nobody was prepared. Tom was simply one of the first victims in this area.
“Now was that fair? Oh, hell no. He was a good man. And he didn’t deserve what happened to him. He didn’t deserve to die the way he did. But am I going to point fingers? No, it’s pointless. And it won’t change anything. We lost him to a virus. I’ve got a lot of company around the world.”