COVID-19 has twice broken Stephanie Seguin’s heart. So has her native Canada.
When her father died in Windsor of congestive heart failure in mid-April, Seguin, who lives in Grosse Pointe Park, couldn’t be with him because the hospital had a strict no-visitors rule due to the virus — and the border was closed. She begged doctors, patient advocates, and the hospital CEO. to let her visit. They all said no.
Seguin had to say goodbye to her father over Facetime. He died with no family, holding a nurse’s hand.
That same month, Seguin’s mother was diagnosed with breast cancer and soon after she underwent a lumpectomy alone. Her daughter has pleaded for weeks with Canadian authorities to let her in so that she can help her mom during this crisis, drive her to radiation, get her home safely and make her meals.
But Canada won’t bend.
“I’m her daughter. I should be there for her,” said Seguin, who is growing increasingly frustrated “I call her everyday. I’ve had the COVID testing. I’m negative. I was prepared to do anything to cross. … It makes no sense.”
She’s not alone.
Cross-border families from Maine to Seattle are struggling with the agony of not being able to visit during the pandemic, which has shut down the U.S.-Canada border to nonessential travel since late March. Especially impacted are adult children whose elderly Canadian parents are facing a medical crisis, forced to cope with grave illnesses without a daughter or son there to talk to the doctors, explain the complicated health information, or hold their hand when they die.
This isn’t about missing their parents, they say. It’s about wanting and needing to be there due to a medical emergency that their parents desperately need help with.
Pancreatic cancer. Breast cancer. Strokes. Funerals.
This is what many parents have had to endure alone in Canada, with their children feeling helpless and hopeless across the border.
While Canada did loosen its border rule earlier this month to allow for some families to reunite, it imposed stipulations that don’t allow for emergency visits. Among the requirements is that you have to immediately quarantine in Canada for 14 days upon arrival, and, you cannot visit elderly people or medically vulnerable people. This makes it impossible for people like Seguin, who has a family in the U.S. that she can’t leave for two straight weeks, to go to Canada for a life-and-death emergency, or to help a sick and grieving parent.
“The Government of Canada recognizes the challenges that this pandemic and the temporary border measures have had on families and has been looking at ways to keep families together and support family unity while respecting measured public health controls,” Judith Gadbois-St-Cyr, spokesperson for the Canada Border Services Agency, said in an email to the Free Press. “We recognize that these are difficult situations for some, however, these are unprecedented times, and the measures imposed were done so in light of potential public health risks and to help reduce and manage the number of foreign travel-related cases of COVID-19.”
Seguin understands that. But she believes exceptions need to be made for people like her, whose elderly sick parents rely on them, but are forced to suffer alone.
“I feel so isolated and sad that I cannot be with my family at this time,” said Seguin, who has U.S. and Canadian citizenship. “We have not buried my dad, and his ashes remain at the funeral home until I can cross again. It’s heartbreaking.”
Twelve years ago, Emily Summerfield’s mother and stepfather moved to Windsor from Victoria to be closer to their daughter, a Montreal native who married an American and is now raising a family in Grosse Pointe Park. For years, the cross-border family enjoyed holidays, birthdays and milestones together, going back and forth as they pleased.
Then illness came.
This past Christmas, Summerfield’s 78-year-old stepfather was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. As the main support person for her mom, she rushed to Canada to help, meeting with doctors, the surgeon, explaining all the complicated medical information to her mom and stepfather.
“I did as much as I could,” she recalled.
Then the pandemic hit. The border shut down.
It’s been almost four months since Summerfield has seen her mom and stepdad, who has suffered more setbacks. He was hospitalized in London, Ontario, for two weeks due to complications from surgery.
Last week, he suffered a stroke.
“It’s so horrendous that my mother is by herself going through this. It’s 25 minutes away,” said Summerville, who agonizes thinking of her mom sitting by herself in her house.
“She is just so devastated,” Summerfield said. “We cry on Facetime. I Facetime her every day at the same time — 5 p.m. We have a cocktail together and I tell her, ‘All I want to do is come and sit on your porch. I won’t even touch you.’ And she starts to cry.’ ”
For Summerfield’s mom, Sally Blyth, life is too much right now. Her husband, Alan Bull, is very ill. And she wants and needs her daughter, so badly that she has launched a writing campaign to convince Canadian authorities to take into account “compassionate reasons” when deciding who can enter the country.
“It’s really tough. And it’s lonely and upsetting — extraordinarily upsetting,” Blyth said. “I feel I have no family.”
Blyth wants the government to allow for extenuating circumstances, so that her daughter can come over for a day, possibly every few days, saying “it would be an enormous help for me.”
“I am wrung out, totally,” Blyth said. “All I want to do is see my family.”
Meanwhile, Blyth said that she supports the strict measures that Canada has put into place to prevent COVID-19 from spreading. And she believes Prime Minister Justin Trudeau “is doing a good job” — she just wants the government to offer some relief to those with extraordinary circumstances.
“I’ve written to every level of government,” said Blyth, who hopes to appeal to Trudeau’s “compassionate side” with this message: “Your mother is a wonderful woman. What would you do, Justin, if you were in this situation?”
Trudeau has repeatedly expressed concerns about triggering a second wave of COVID-19 by easing border restrictions and letting in people from abroad.
“All this is difficult and frustrating, and longer than we hoped it would be in many ways,” Trudeau has previously said in explaining the border closure. “But, at the same time, we know that the cost of having to return into social isolation, return into lockdown because of a massive resurgence is not one that anyone wants to bear, which is why we are being very cautious going forward.”
Canada has 103,000 confirmed cases of COVID-19 and more than 8,500 deaths. In comparison, the much larger U.S. has 2.5 million cases and 125,000 deaths — more than any other country, with a surge now occurring in southern states.
This has Canada on edge, though some Americans have been allowed to visit Canada under loosened border rules announced June 8.
According to the CBC, one Michigan father has been granted permission to cross the border for the birth of his first child, who is due in August. He and his wife are both doctors, though the mom-to-be lives in Windsor. COVID-19 forced the couple to live apart, though a new border rule went into effect on June 8 allowing the couple to be together for the birth.
The new rule also worked in favor of another Michigan father, who missed out on the birth of his first son in Windsor on May 9, but was permitted to travel to Canada in June to see his child.
Seguin, meanwhile, hopes the government and hospitals soon show the same compassion to people like her, who ache to help their elderly sick parents or who want to say goodbye to their dying parents in person, not on a computer screen like she had to.
Her father was stoic that day. It was the day after Easter Sunday. He was lucid and called her.
“He was consoling me because I was crying, saying, ‘It’s OK, Stephanie. It’s going to be OK. Just take care of your mom and take care of yourself.”
The next two days he was unresponsive, but Stephanie kept calling and telling him that she loved him.
“I just kept saying, ‘I’d be there if I could. I would do anything to be there, but they won’t let me, Dad.’
Her father, Hubert Seguin, died April 15.
Since then, she has been trying to get to Windsor to help her mom, Olga, 79, recover from breast cancer, drive her to radiation appointments, make her lunch, and come back home. Her mom is typically a rule-follower who doesn’t like to ruffle feathers, she said.
But she has reached a breaking point.
“She told me to call Parliament,” she said of her mother. “She’s had it. She’s angry.”
So, at her mother’s request, Seguin wrote Parliament, pleading for help. Her request was forwarded to the Minister of Health. She got a response: There’s no allowances being made right now.
“It’s not right,” she said. “It shouldn’t be like this.”
But Tuesday, she received a response from Parliament inviting her to apply online for an exemption from the 14-day quarantine requirement. A public health official will review the request and make a decision.
“Fingers crossed for approval!,” she said.
COVID-19 has twice broken Stephanie Seguin’s heart. So has her native Canada.