Hospital or Prison: How a hospital isolated my elderly mother and took away her freedoms during Covid-19

This Passover, my mother became enslaved by a modern Pharaoh in a new Egypt

By Bonnie K. Goodman, BA, MLIS

עֲבָדִים הָיִינוּ לְפַרְעֹה בְּמִצְרָיֽם עַתָּה — בְּנֵי חוֹרִין

Avadim hayinu lepharo bemitzrayim, ata — benei chorin

The maggid portion of the Passover Haggadah recounts the exodus from Egypt: “We were slaves to Pharaoh in Egypt, and the Lord, our G-d, took us out from there with a strong hand and with an outstretched arm. If the Holy One, blessed be He, had not taken our fathers out of Egypt. We, our children and our children’s children would have remained enslaved to Pharaoh in Egypt.” [1]Each person has to recite at the Passover seder as if they to personally exited Egypt. In the Diaspora, as we are finishing the eighth day, our forefathers crossed the Red Sea to certain freedom from the Egyptians but left wandering in the desert on the way to Mount Sinai.

This Passover, my mother started the holiday with the false belief she was a free person and ended it as a slave, imprisoned by the hospital she has been a patient at for the last three months. Like Joseph and the twelve tribes, we are stranger in a strange land” at the hospital. In Montreal, we live in the predominantly Jewish hamlet of Cote Saint-Luc; the hospital is in Verdun, a primarily French and Christian community; Jews are a rarity in the Verdun neighborhood Verdun’s Hospital. We had no choice; the ambulance chose to take her away from her home to this strange land. As the Jewish experience with Egypt soon soured quickly to become slaves of a sort, freedom becoming more elusive.

The situation was impossible from the start; we are Anglophone, the hospital is Francophone, and my blind elderly mother was lost navigating the place alone. With every pre-Covid hospitalization, my father and I stayed with her 24/7, and then when my father died when I was sixteen years old, I took over the responsibility. None of the hospitals ever minded, but these hospitals in our homeland, whether just Anglophobe or are Jewish General Hospital. Six years ago, my mother stayed at the Jewish General for over a week. Once they stabilized her heart, the stay hardly seemed like a hospitalization. My mother stayed in a semi-private room, which was empty most of the time there. She had delicious kosher dinners, with surplus from the cafeteria where I bought my meals; I was allowed to sleep on the big comfortable chairs. We even watched then-presidential hopeful Donald Trump give his speech announcing his run for the Republican presidential nomination and had a good laugh, until later his campaign did not become a joke.

But in Egypt’s hospitals, during Covid, my mother had to venture into exile alone while I remained at home. I could not contact her, could not get information about her. From the very start, the nurses said they would call the police on me for just enquiring about her condition in the emergency room. Well, I called 911, and they thought it was ridiculous, but strange lands make strange rules. The emphasis on those rules was isolating the patient from their family and the outside world and prescribing medication that made the patient sleepy and unaware of their surroundings. There has been a war in communicating with my mother and over her telephone access from day one. As Rabbi Elliot Cosgrove of Park Avenue Synagogue said in his sermon, this past Shabbat, to be isolated is to be imprisoned.

During the three months of her stay in the strange land, the language barrier isolated us most. I fought each moment to speak with my mother, to have a say over her treatment. Nurses coldly told me I could not talk to my mother. I was told I was only allowed three calls a day, although each time someone entered my mother’s room, they disconnected her phone. Since my mother is blind, she could not see the receiver back or redial without help. They would not help her. I spent a month and a half fighting with the medical staff to stop giving my mother Dilaudid, an opioid painkiller. My mother had all the terrible side effects, the delirium, the constant drowsiness and sleepiness, and the psychological effects. On the phone, my mother would scream at me, barely knowing who I was, telling me to leave her alone and then hang up on me. I was left in tears, I knew it was the drug, but still, it hurt so much.

My mother went in, and they discovered she had an infection from a wound relating to her fall. She had a heart attack from the aggravation the day she went to the hospital. The emergency room doctor frankly and coldly told me my mother might not make it. Two weeks later, she contracted Covid-19 from her hospital stay. They moved her to the Covid floor on my birthday; it took them twelve hours to tell me that they moved her in the evening after cutting off the phone from us for the night. It took another two hours after I called in the morning to find out they did move her to the Covid floor.

I spent the next ten days in fear, fear that my mother would die, and fear that I would be all alone in the world. The hospital did not make it any better. The staff would not let me talk to my mother, saying there is a three-call rule. At 9 pm, on the second night, I was literally crying and begging that they would reconnect me to my mother. They didn’t care; they repeatedly told me they would not let me speak to my mother and hung down on me. It is a lifetime to wait for twelve hours to call again when someone has Covid, especially when the elderly, sick, and frail. Then, one nurse had the nerve to tell me at 9 am on the third day of my mother’s Covid diagnosis that I could not call her for a full day. I had to hire a lawyer, and even they refused to listen to him.

My mother survived Covid; the medical team had been like Pharaoh wavering on everything. For over a month, the doctors used an X-ray when my mother was in the emergency two months before claiming it might be bone cancer. Even though I repeatedly asked at the start if my mother had cancer and they emphatically said no. The doctors wavered depending on who was on duty and hardened their hearts when there should have been empathy. They justified not telling us, claiming my mother would have refused treatment because she does not want to take the tests now. However, the doctors’ responsibility was to tell the patient and family everything to make a decision. The doctors and medical team have been a constant contradiction. Almost every day, they think of something new, whether a new ailment, test, or surgery, to even wanting my mother to go to a rehabilitation center or a nursing home. There has been no consistency but constant upheaval and heartache with no consideration for my mother and me. What has been constant is encroaching on my mother’s freedom.

Like the Israelites in Egypt, the more they complained about the hard labor, the worst it became. When my mother and I complained, they imposed more reprisals, and the reprisals have to do what my mother holds most precious her communication with me as the Israelites multiplied in Egypt and flourished. The lawyer secured that my mother would be able to have access to the phone at all times. Since January, after my mother recovered from Covid, she has flourished with my help. We kept the line open; we did not talk all that time, obviously, but it was a comfort to her to know she can talk into the phone and I was there; it was like I was physically there when I could not be. I helped my mother with the drug names when she took her pills. My mother became alert, returned to her old self, and the wound healed. As my mother often told me, she would not stay alive without me being on the phone.

However, I witnessed what was happening in the room because they questioned my mother’s accounts before I witnessed everything. The hospital stay has been full of abuse, mistreatment, and trickery. The doctors prescribed my mother medication without telling her, even ones she refused. The nurses were hiding the pills they were giving her in apple sauce and food and withholding what they were giving her. The orderlies mishandled, were rough, and routinely nearly drop my mother when they were supposed to be helping her, which happens quite often. It is the type of abuse you hear about in news stories and are appalled it is happening. She has her meals taken from her; she waited hours for a drink, even when choking. The straw that broke us was the young physical and occupational therapists closing my mother’s physiotherapy file; the therapy was the key to her regaining her mobility, independence, and coming home.

Like Moses, when he saw an Egyptian beating a Hebrew, he felt he had to do something. For me, it was complaining to the hierarchy and making public what was happening with my mother’s consent and collaboration. In complaining to the occupational therapist, I begged for another chance. When her heart hardened and refused, I used one profane word to describe what closing the file does to an elderly patient. It was enough to get me banned from speaking to anyone in the hospital about my mother’s health.

The doctor, the Pharaoh of this strange land, came into my mother’s room and spoke longer than she ever did to my mother and put down her decree. She would severely limit my mother’s time on the phone, going down from 24-hour access to four. My mother said she did not consent. Still, like Pharaoh’s decree killing the male Israelite children, she did not relent. The first evening of the doctor Pharaoh’s decree, my mother, like Yohaved with baby Moses, tried to hide me on the phone, trying to have more time. At that time, I overheard the nurse telling my mother the only reason her phone time was being restricted because I posted a rough interaction between the orderlies and my mother online. The nurse said I could not post anything online; the hospital wanted mine, and my mother’s voice and freedom of speech silenced.

This Shabbat, the seventh day of Passover, as our ancestors crossed G-d’s miracle parting of the Red Sea to safety, I called the hospital to ask for my mother's special consideration to hear the Livestream services. We are non-resident members of Park Avenue Synagogue in NY. They are well-known for live streaming their services for years, even before the Conservative movement’s Rabbinical Assembly allowed the special consideration during the Covid-19 pandemic. My mother always listened to the services with me, and during her hospitalization, she listed over the phone to their services. This is the first major holiday my mother has been hospitalization and Sunday was Yizkor services, and my mother wanted to attend to say the prayers for her parents. The nurse refused to allow my mother the special consideration to change her phone time to listen to the services or to have access to a tablet, which the hospital allows for patients. They emphatically refused to allow my mother to attend these services, and this Passover, she was left all alone in her hospital room.

Park Avenue Synagogue literally saved me through my mother’s hospitalization; the support system, caring, empathetic clergy, and staff have been incredible. Their activities and adult education programs have saved my sanity; I take four classes, which my mother always listened to; I participated in their Purim Spiel online Purim play. We attended all their Sabbath services, Friday evening and Saturday morning, and Saturday evening. I occasionally attend the daily prayers. Just two Saturdays ago, on March 20, I was honored with a Torah Aliyah for my maternal grandfather’s Yahrzeit, yearly memorial. Judaism is my life, I am a graduate of Herzliah High School, and I took Judaic Studies at the graduate level at Concordia University. I write about Jewish history and specialize in anti-Semitism in North America. Before my mother’s hospitalization, I had planned to apply for a doctorate in Jewish Studies.

I asked the nurse if anyone else besides me can call my mother or speak to anyone else outside the times she was allowed to speak with me. The nurse told me no, my mother would not be allowed to speak to her friends, a rabbi, or even a lawyer. I was informed the Pharaoh Doctor has her nurses, the Egyptian overseers “cut” my mother’s telephone line, keeping her entirely isolated from the outside world. And just the Israelites, my mother cries out for help from her bondage to G-d and online to the public via my postings.

Freedom is essential to the Passover story. For our ancestors, it was freedom from enslavement in Egypt. In modern times democracies provide fundamental freedoms, and as citizens, we cherish these inviolable rights and stand up that every person, organization, and agency respects them. The Quebec Charter of Human Rights and Freedoms guarantees, “Every human being has a right to life, and to personal security, inviolability and freedom…. Every person has a right to full and equal recognition and exercise of his human rights and freedoms, without distinction, exclusion, or preference based on race, color, sex, gender identity or expression, pregnancy, sexual orientation, civil status, age except as provided by law, religion, political convictions, language, ethnic or national origin, social condition, a handicap or the use of any means to palliate a handicap. Discrimination exists where such a distinction, exclusion or preference has the effect of nullifying or impairing such right.” [2]

Maybe even worse than the Egyptians, my mother has three of her fundamental rights and freedoms are taken from her; freedom of speech, religion, and to be protected by a vulnerable person who is both blind and elderly. The power of freedom of expression and freedom of speech are the two of the dearest freedoms of democracies. According to the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, “Everyone has the following fundamental freedoms: freedom of thought, belief, opinion and expression, including freedom of the press and other media of communication.”[3] While the Quebec Charter guarantees, “Every person is the possessor of the fundamental freedoms, including freedom of conscience, freedom of religion, freedom of opinion, freedom of expression, freedom of peaceful assembly and freedom of association.”[4] Without posting recordings, how we know George Floyd's stories and others that suffer discrimination and brutality, including fellow Canadian patient Joyce Echaquan, who faced discrimination at the hands of her nurses.

Our Quebec Charter of Human Rights and Freedoms also protects the elderly from exploitation. Among the types of exploitation is “preventing someone from receiving visitors, communicating with relatives and friends, or receiving mail.” [5]

The Quebec Charter claims, “Every aged person and every handicapped person has a right to protection against any form of exploitation. Such a person also has a right to the protection and security that must be provided to him by his family or the persons acting in their stead.” [6]

As Jews and any other religious minority in a democracy, Freedom of Religion is a precious right to practice our religion without discrimination and reprisal freely. The Canadian Charter promises, “Everyone has the following fundamental freedoms freedom of conscience and religion…. the right to entertain such religious beliefs as a person chooses, the right to declare religious beliefs openly and without fear of hindrance or reprisal, and the right to manifest religious belief by worship and practice or by teaching and dissemination.” [7]

During the Covid-19 pandemic, public health measures have clashed with religious freedoms to congregate and pray. Still, when there is no threat like Covid, no one should be denied the right to hear, attend, and pray at services, and democracies protect that freedom. According to B’nai Brith Canada’s 2019 data, there were “2,041 incidents of anti-Semitism, an increase of 16 percent from the previous year.” Michael Mostyn, B’nai Brith’s CEO, expressed, “We are experiencing a disturbing new normal when it comes to anti-Semitism in this country, with expressions of anti-Jewish hatred surfacing in regions that are typically less prone to such prejudices.”[8]

The sharp change from allowing my mother all access to the phone to these severe restrictions has been drastic. She says the isolation affects her physical and mental health; barely anyone comes into her, and she is all alone. Except for the staff police, the phone calls start and end, my mother says; they stand by her door periodically throughout the calls, and especially before the end to hang up the phone. Like the Egyptians that ripped the male babies away from the Israelite women, the nurses tear the phone literally away from my mother’s hand. My mother gets so emotional when they take the phone away from her, and although I am a grownup, to tear a child by force from their mother at any age is heartbreaking. Not only are they taking her phone privileges away from her, but we also don’t know how long she will live, and they are taking her precious days away from her daughter and keeping me from my mother.

In Canada, seniors 65 years and older are only growing; presently, they represent t 13 percent of the population. However, as the Baby Boomers get older, the number of seniors might grow within five years to 26 percent. The World Health Organization (WHO) believes between five and 25 percent of seniors worldwide are abused; however, the average is 10 percent. While the most common abuse is isolation, caused by an “unequal balance of power between the victim and abuser, a relationship of dependency… Isolation is the hallmark of elder abuse as the abuser tries to isolate the victim from other people and resources.” The biggest problem is the victims are too scared to speak out. As Hospital News points out, “Most abused older adults don’t report the abuse even if they are in a supposedly “safe” environment like the hospital. They feel very vulnerable and frightened and unsure of who to trust. They fear retribution either from a family member or the care provider and so remain silent.” [9]

As G-d sent Moses and Aaron to Pharaoh, asking him to let his people go. With each refusal sent them ten plagues, the plagues will be me keeping on telling about my mother’s experience until the doctor will let her go. My mother is too scared to speak up, and I am her emissary trying to get her the justice she deserves. All my mother wants is to go home and be set free from the slavery and imprisonment the hospital has put her in. Just like we end the seder with Next Year in Jerusalem, I pray too my mother is freed by the hospital and has a chance for our eternal wish of being in Jerusalem next Pesach.

Any reference to the story of Passover comes from the book of Shemot, Exodus on Sefaria https://www.sefaria.org/Exodus.1.1?lang=bi&with=all&lang2=en

Bonnie K. Goodman, BA, MLIS, is a journalist, librarian, and historian. She is the author of Silver Boom! The Rise and Decline of Leadville, Colorado as the United States Silver Capital, 1860–1896. She has a BA in History, and Art History, a Masters in Library and Information Studies both from McGill University, and has done graduate work in Jewish history at Concordia University as part of the MA in Judaic Studies Program, and her thesis was entitled, “Unconditional Loyalty to the Cause: Southern Whiteness, Jewish Women, and Antisemitism, 1860–1913.”

[1] http://archive.jewishagency.org/nechama-leibowitz-haggadah/content/24089

[2] http://legisquebec.gouv.qc.ca/en/ShowDoc/cs/C-12

[3] https://www.justice.gc.ca/eng/csj-sjc/rfc-dlc/ccrf-ccdl/check/art2b.html

[4] http://legisquebec.gouv.qc.ca/en/showversion/cs/C-12?code=se:3&pointInTime=20190709

[5] https://educaloi.qc.ca/en/capsules/protecting-seniors-from-exploitation-abuse/

[6] http://legisquebec.gouv.qc.ca/en/showdoc/cs/c-12

[7] https://www.justice.gc.ca/eng/csj-sjc/rfc-dlc/ccrf-ccdl/check/art2a.html

[8] https://nationalpost.com/news/canada/a-disturbing-new-normal-how-jewish-canadians-are-reacting-to-spate-of-anti-semitic-violence

[9] https://hospitalnews.com/elder-abuse-a-hidden-health-and-social-issue/

Bonnie K. Goodman BA, MLIS (McGill University) is a Professional Librarian (CBPQ) & historian. Former editor @ History News Network & reporter @ Examiner.com.

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