Winnipeg man dies of COVID-19 at rural hospital after being transferred to clear beds for pandemic surge – CBC.ca

Clarke Gehman was sent to a health-care facility four hours away from Winnipeg after the expected influx of COVID-19 patients left him without a bed in the city — but his family never expected that same illness would end his life just weeks later.

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Clarke Gehman, right, and his wife Elizabeth. He died earlier this month after contracting COVID-19 a few weeks after he was transferred out of a Winnipeg hospital. His family is disappointed his death happened several hours from home because there was no available bed in Winnipeg. (Submitted by Kirby Gehman)

Clarke Gehman was sent to a health-care facility four hours away from Winnipeg after the expected influx of COVID-19 patients left him without a bed in the city — but his family never expected that same illness would end his life just weeks later.

Clarke, 84, contracted COVID-19 sometime after he was transferred to Russell, Man., said his son, Kirby Gehman.

“The fact that [his hospital] was four hours away was kind of a surprise, and the fact that he came out of it dead was also not expected,” he said.

Nearly three weeks after his initial transfer, Clarke died of COVID-19 on Feb. 11. 

Families across Manitoba have decried the health system’s recent practice of whisking patients — many of them seniors — away from their loved ones to hospitals outside their local health region, which are sometimes hours away.

These transfers started in October 2021 to ensure Manitoba was ready for the anticipated surge in COVID-19 patients. 

Unanswered questions

In the case of the Gehman family, this shouldn’t have ended in tragedy, NDP Leader Wab Kinew said.

“My heart really goes out to this family because it seems like there are issues that are compounding their grief, in addition to having lost their loved one. I’m sure there are questions along the lines of: what might have been had he not been transferred?”

“It’s just unfortunate that our health-care system is that such a point where those unanswered questions around the care that somebody receives are just adding to the hurt that families are feeling right now.”

Clarke Gehman, a former fighter pilot who joined the Royal Canadian Air Force at the age of 17, was taken into Winnipeg’s Victoria Hospital for liver and kidney issues on Jan. 9.

It did not surprise Kirby that his dad, in stable condition, could be eligible for a transfer. On Jan. 24, Clarke was taken to Russell, Man., which is more than 310 kilometres west of Winnipeg.

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Clarke Gehman, seated, and his wife Elizabeth are joined by members of their family in an undated holiday photo. (Submitted by Kirby Gehman)

His family in Winnipeg wasn’t able to visit him because the hospital denied visitors in an effort to stop COVID-19 from spreading, Kirby said.

Around the time the Gehmans were planning to seek an exemption, they learned Clarke would be transferred to Reston, Man., which is nearly 290 kilometres west of Winnipeg.

He arrived on Feb. 3, but a routine COVID test several days later was positive.

Driving hours to say goodbye

Two days later, hospital staff urged the family to drive to Reston to see their dad one final time.

“I was feeling the normal kind of emotions around driving to see a dying parent, but on top of that, there was also — we shouldn’t have to be doing this,” Kirby said. “The resources should be there that we shouldn’t have to be doing this.”

Kirby suspects his father contracted COVID-19 either in Russell or during the transfer to Reston, but he doesn’t know with certainty.

He said his frustration around the entire situation is directed at the provincial government, who should have better funded the health-care system to increase capacity and prevent such transfers from happening.

In the last five months, 293 patients have been sent outside their regional health authority, according to Shared Health, which oversees health-care delivery in the province. At least two of those patients have died.

In response to Clarke Gehman’s passing, Shared Health said it extends its condolences to the family on their loss.

“We know that patient transfers to different sites can be unsettling and disruptive for both patients and their families,” a spokesperson said by email, adding the practice remains necessary to ensure Manitoba’s health-care system can care for everybody.

Manitoba Health said it could not comment on specific cases, but an official said several factors are considered before any transfer occurs, including whether the receiving facility can meet the family’s needs.

Kirby said he commends the health-care workers who cared for his dad for doing the best they can.

“They were apologizing that he had to be transferred there. They’re apologizing that I can’t go see him,” he said.

“There’s all of these things that are just out of their hands because they don’t have the resources to do things the way they should be done.”

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Clarke Gehman joined the Royal Canadian Air Force at the age of 17. (Submitted by Kirby Gehman)

Kirby remembers his father as someone who loved flying. He went from serving in the Air Force to inspecting airstrips across Manitoba with Transport Canada and, in retirement, to spending time building and flying radio-controlled model airplanes.

He said his father was happy the health-care workers gave him one last flight. He was flown to Russell’s hospital by air.

“I can just see it, strapped to the gurney in the back; he’d be making comments the whole way. He’d be making sure that things were going well, I’m sure,” Kirby said. “That was my dad.”

Clarke was predeceased by his wife Elizabeth, who died in 2020.