For nine months, Maureen Ambersley followed the same routine when she came home from a shift at the Mississauga long-term care home where she was a nurse. She’d strip off her scrubs at the door, throw them in the laundry, shower, and then change into one of her silky African-print house dresses. Exhausted from being on her feet all day, the 57-year-old would lie in bed with the door wide open – her perch allowed her to see all the goings-on in the Brampton home that housed four generations.
When her 26-year-old son, Floyd, returned from his job at Amazon, she would call out, “Bwoy, where ya going? Come here and tell me ‘bout your day.” Mr. Ambersley would climb into bed with his mother, who loved nothing more than watching Disney movies and cuddling with family, and inevitably hear about her day: usually stories about the residents with whom she developed close relationships.
In late December, his mother went up to her room one day and closed the door. She had a cough.
When she called her employer, Extendicare Mississauga, to tell them she was sick, “they were still trying to call her to come in,” her son said. Ms. Ambersley said she needed to take a COVID-19 test and was told by her employer that if the results were negative, she was expected to return to work immediately, according to her son. A spokesperson for Extendicare said all staff are tested weekly and any who are symptomatic are sent home to isolate and self-monitor.
Ms. Ambersley tested positive on Christmas Eve, the day after the first of her colleagues were offered a chance to be vaccinated against COVID-19. After her symptoms worsened, she was admitted to Brampton Civic Hospital on Christmas morning and never came home. Ms. Ambersley was one of 18 staff and 38 residents infected with COVID-19 at Extendicare Mississauga since an outbreak was declared in December. She died on Jan. 5.
Her grieving son is haunted by three voice notes he recorded with his mother in May – when Extendicare Mississauga was still virus-free – in which she described a workplace she feared did not have the right protocols in place to protect staff and residents from COVID-19 if it ever got into the building.
She described tending to a resident when the bell – a signal that a resident needed attention – would go off and no one would be there to answer so she’d have to leave the resident she was with to run to the other. “We’re challenged with overwork and under staff,” she said.
Her son said in the eight months since that was recorded, the situation with staffing “absolutely didn’t change.” He said his mother often worked “crazy days,” once finishing her 8 a.m. to 3 p.m. shift and then staying till 10 p.m. to cover another shift when a colleague couldn’t make it. “They almost gave her a scenario where she can’t leave,” he said.
Faye McGaw, a personal support worker in the same unit, said Ms. Ambersley would sometimes arrive at work complaining of a headache or a toothache.
“What the hell are you doing here, Maureen?” Ms. McGaw would ask her.
“Well, I have to come in to work,” she’d respond, according to Ms. McGaw.
Ms. McGaw would scold her friend for feeling any sense of loyalty to their employer. “They don’t appreciate us,” she’d say.
Ms. McGaw is isolating at home after contracting COVID-19 at work, one of 13 active staff cases.
In an e-mailed statement, an Extendicare spokesperson said the home had hired 11 full-time staff since the summer. “Still, staffing challenges throughout the sector continue to be exacerbated as the pandemic persists,” they said.
In another voice memo, Ms. Ambersley complained of a shortage of personal protective equipment for front-line staff. “Some days we have and some days we don’t have,” she said. “Then there are days when we have one set of PPE for the entire day.”
Ms. McGaw said staff complained for months about the PPE shortage in the spring and nothing changed until Ms. Ambersley “went upstairs [to the management office]; she voiced her opinion and we got stuff,” Ms. McGaw said.
A spokesperson for Extendicare said in an e-mail that the home “has had an ample and consistent supply of PPE to meet all provincial directives both before and during this outbreak.”
Ms. Ambersley’s death has highlighted again how the virus has disproportionately infected racialized people, a population that is overrepresented among staff at the long-term care homes and warehouses, sites of the worst workplace outbreaks in the country.
“Our members that have passed away due to COVID – four in the last year – they are all women of colour. Mothers who have worked in health care for a long period of time,” said Tyler Downey, the secretary-treasurer of SEIU Healthcare, the national union that represents 60,000 workers (and included Ms. Ambersley).
Ms. Ambersley was a single mother, and although both her adult children worked, she put a roof over their heads and those of her two grandchildren and her parents. She learned early on how to be a provider.
When she arrived in Toronto from Jamaica at 18, the only contact she had was an aunt. But it took a while to get in touch with her, Mr. Ambersley said, and his mother spent her first few weeks as a new immigrant sleeping in a bus station. She got a job as a cleaner and later took training to become a dental assistant and then a PSW. She got married and then divorced when her kids were young. For much of Mr. Ambersley’s childhood, his mother worked and went to school: She studied to become a registered practical nurse, then got her masters in nursing.
When reflecting on all her years of education, Mr. Ambersley told his mother, “You could’ve been a doctor.” But she said she was content as a nurse – she loved spending time with the people she cared for.
Colleagues said her warm, Colgate ad-worthy smile and gentle demeanour could win over even the most prickly residents.
When she became symptomatic, Ms. Ambersley self-isolated in her room, and her mother, who was her best friend, sprung into caregiver mode despite her daughter’s protests. Soon, she was infected too and taken to hospital. Days later, Ms. Ambersley’s father tested positive and was taken to hospital as well, although his daughter had no idea he was there.
Ms. Ambersley’s health quickly deteriorated – she had hypertension and was borderline diabetic, conditions associated with severe outcomes from COVID-19 – and she was transferred to the ICU.
Mr. Ambersley’s hopes about his mother’s recovery were dashed every time her doctors called. First, they said she was on a ventilator. Then on life support. Then they warned she might not make it until morning. Ten minutes later, they said her heart had stopped.
On Dec. 29, Ms. Ambersley called her son from the ICU. Ever the provider, she wanted to tell him how to look up her life insurance policy.
“Please don’t be telling me stuff like that,” he pleaded with her in their last conversation. “You’re going to be out of the hospital, you’re going to be walking around in no time.”
Sign up for the Coronavirus Update newsletter to read the day’s essential coronavirus news, features and explainers written by Globe reporters and editors.