‘Always up on everything’: Woman remembers sister who died from COVID-19 at Northwood

In early March, Jane Hawes and a few family members visited Northwood’s Halifax campus to celebrate her sister’s 90th birthday. It would be the last time they saw each other.

Jean Harrigan died at the long-term care home on May 1 after contracting COVID-19. She is one of the 40 Northwood residents who died since the disease broke out in the facility.

Hawes described her big sister as “quite the lady.”

“Just a lively person, happy,” she said. “She was just a lady who you had total respect for the minute you met her.”

Harrigan was the eldest of eight siblings and spent her entire life in Halifax. As Hawes was one of the youngest, there was a 21-year age difference between the two, so Harrigan would sometimes help out with her siblings while they were growing up.

“She was quite helpful,” Hawes recalled of her childhood. “She’d take us for drives and take us to the park. She’d step in a bit and help out.”

Harrigan is seen during her younger years in this family photo. (Submitted by Karen Smith)

Harrigan had a deep love for music and dancing, said Hawes. Many members of the family could play musical instruments and she “loved to sit and sing along with everyone else.”

In her younger years, she also loved attending dances and parties, even donning a ballgown sometimes for special occasions.

When Harrigan was in her 20s, she began working as an office manager for the engineering firm Warnock Hersey — a job she would keep up until she retired in her 60s.

“She was always up on everything. Smart, smart lady,” said Hawes.

She added her sister loved taking long, early morning walks, “rain or shine,” even after her retirement.

Harrigan was ‘quite content’ at Northwood

About four years ago, Harrigan was diagnosed with dementia.

At the time, her husband, Frederick, was sick with cancer, and they didn’t have children, so Hawes and her other siblings decided a long-term care facility would be the best place for her.

She moved into Northwood about a year later and her husband died a few months after that.

Harrigan is seen with her husband, Frederick, in this family photo. (Submitted by Karen Smith)

Hawes said her sister resisted the move at first, but she settled in after a couple of weeks. As time went on, she believed she was living in her old home instead.

“She was always fine with being where she was, because she didn’t realize she was there,” said Hawes.

“After a while, they put her in her own room — beautiful room, bright, sunny — and she was fine, she was quite content.”

Hawes and her other sister began visiting Harrigan every Tuesday — up until the facility was locked down due to the pandemic.

They would take her to get her hair done, take her to eat at Northwood’s restaurant and take her for walks in her wheelchair or sit for a spell outside.

“She loved to watch people,” said Hawes. “She loved to go out and sit on the patio that they just built there, or the back where there’s a garden, and we would sit there and talk and watch nature a bit.”

The family also got Harrigan a mechanical dog — named Toby, after a dog Harrigan owned about 20 years ago — to keep her company. Toby was with Harrigan up until the very end, said Hawes.

‘They really did the best they could’

Harrigan tested positive for COVID-19 about a week and a half before she died. Hawes said she doesn’t know how she contracted the virus.

After Harrigan became ill, Hawes said she was in frequent contact with the facility about her sister’s condition. At first, she seemed to be doing well, until one day when she stopped eating and drinking.

“That’s when they knew she had given up,” said Hawes.

In her final days, Hawes said the staff at Northwood took “excellent” care of her sister. The nurse on Harrigan’s floor would sometimes put his phone on speakerphone so Hawes could speak to her, even while she was incapacitated.

“I got to talk to her and tell her that I cared, and that I loved her,” said Hawes.

“I never mentioned anything about her passing away. I just would say to her, ‘You’re going on a journey, I hear, and thank you for all the secrets you kept from mom for me,’ and little things like that,” she said with a chuckle.

Jane Hawes says the staff at Northwood took good care of her sister. (Submitted by Karen Smith)

Hawes said staff at the facility told her Harrigan’s passing was “very peaceful.”

Northwood has been dealing with Nova Scotia’s most significant outbreak of COVID-19, with residents making up most of the COVID-19-related deaths in the province.

Despite staffing issues at the facility, Hawes said the employees communicated frequently with the family, even as the number of cases at the facility continued to grow.

“I think it was well-run, for the staff they had, and the amount of residents they had,” she said. “They really did the best they could, because they were run off their feet. They really were.”

CBC Nova Scotia is sharing stories of the victims of COVID-19 to commemorate those we’ve lost to the pandemic. If you’ve lost a loved one and want to share your memories of them, reach out via [email protected]

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