It was, for Colleen Evans, the worst of birthdays.

Friday morning, newly 71, Colleen went to Mid Coast Hospital in Brunswick to visit her husband, Bob Evans. He’s 76, suffering from pneumonia and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, or COPD, and spent last week rapidly approaching death’s door – his breathing labored, his mind beset by hallucinations, his life seemingly slipping away with each passing hour.

Two hours after Colleen arrived, the hospital’s new no-visitors policy went into effect, brought on by the wave of COVID-19 cases breaking over Maine and the rest of the country. Much as they hated to do it, hospital staffers told Colleen, along with her daughter, Julie, they would have to leave immediately.

So, on the day she should have been celebrating her birthday with her husband of 41 years, Colleen had no choice but to go home to the house in Phippsburg that Bob built four decades ago.

“I had chips and salsa for dinner,” she said in a phone interview Monday. “And I cried all day.”

Most of us, when we think of hospitals during this darkest of times, envision health providers desperate for N95 masks, sterile gloves, respirators and other scarce supplies needed to deal with the novel coronavirus that has now sickened 107 Mainers and counting. We picture hospital rooms fast filling up with COVID-19 patients, who in the coming weeks could overwhelm our medical system’s ability to provide beds for all of the afflicted.

Yet, amid this once-unimaginable crisis, the normal cycle of life and death goes on. Patients with other critical maladies still take turns for the worst, show up in ambulances at the emergency room entrances and, just like that, get swept up in a sea of precautions the likes of which today’s Americans have never seen.

Colleen called the ambulance last Tuesday.

Bob’s COPD, first diagnosed several years ago, has steadily worsened. Twice last year, he was hospitalized for pneumonia – and twice the antibiotics did the trick and he returned home within a few days.

But this time was different. Bob could barely breathe. And when the ambulance crew showed up to transport him, they told Colleen to stay put – even if she followed after them, she wouldn’t be allowed inside the ER.

“They hadn’t taken his glasses with him,” Colleen said. “So, I called the ER and asked if I could bring his glasses, and they told me somebody would meet me at the door, which they did, and they took the glasses. But I still could not go in.”

Bob was admitted to the hospital, and Colleen and her daughter were allowed to visit him Wednesday, one at a time.

By then, his condition had grown more dire.

“He suddenly became very delusional on Wednesday,” Colleen said. “He would go through these episodes where he would try to pull out his IV’s. He didn’t know anybody. He saw penguins in the parking lot.”

At one point, Bob’s thrashing got so bad that it took four hospital employees to temporarily disconnect his intravenous lines and restrain him. The nurses explained to Colleen that delusions can sometimes occur in serious cases of pneumonia.

By Thursday, Bob was worse. By Friday, he’d deteriorated even further.

“They finally had to sedate him,” Colleen said. “After we had been there for two hours (on Friday morning), they came and told us, ‘You have to leave.’ The new policy was absolutely no visitors.”

In an interview Monday, Mid Coast Hospital spokeswoman Judy Kelsh said the new policy – no visitors except for extenuating circumstances, which are considered on a case-by-case basis – is as wrenching for the hospital staff as it is for the patients and their loved ones.

“Our hearts are really going out to our patients and our community members during these times,” Kelsh said. “It’s definitely challenging for all of us.”

Colleen understands and harbors no resentment toward the hospital for its no-visitors policy, which aims to protect everyone – providers, patients and visitors alike – from the spread of COVID-19. Still, when a nurse later called to tell her that she and her daughter had been cleared for “end-of-life visits,” she thanked her, retreated into the silence of her home with her and Bob’s three dogs, and wept.

“That really brought it home that he probably was going to die,” she said. “Now I’m at home because I can’t go anywhere and do anything. Because if they should call and say, ‘You need to come,’ I can’t have been around anybody.”

On Saturday, a CT scan revealed a mass in Bob’s throat. It turned out to be a mix of mucus and food that he’d aspirated before being hospitalized. The doctor managed to suction it out but only after Bob was heavily sedated, intubated and placed on a ventilator.

Now the question is: Can he survive without it?

Colleen’s weekend was a tangle of worries, all propelled by that phrase “end-of-life visit”: Normal funerals are currently out of the question. Where’s the life insurance policy? Are they still issuing death certificates or has that process shut down too?

Colleen’s other daughter, Lisa, lives in Colorado and obviously wanted to be on the next plane to Maine.

“We discussed her coming home, but then you face the whole having to be quarantined” after traveling, Colleen said. “And that’s kind of useless – to come home because somebody may be dying and then have to be quarantined.”

Later Monday, Colleen got a call from her husband’s pulmonologist, who offered at least a ray of hope: Over the next day or two, they’ll try to wean Bob from the ventilator.

“He said every condition is different, but (Bob’s) vitals are good. And he’s keeping his fingers crossed that everything goes well,” Colleen said.

As of late Monday afternoon, according to spokeswoman Kelsh, the number of confirmed COVID-19 cases at Mid Coast Hospital had risen from one to four. Of the hospital’s 93 beds, 46 were occupied. Beyond Bob’s ventilator, Kelsh said, the inventory of available machines “is not a finite number and can change as needed.”

Meanwhile, Colleen sits at home, phone still in hand, and waits.

For a few bittersweet moments Monday, she spoke about the man she’s loved since he was a food vendor and she was a customer service manager at Shaw’s supermarket in Brunswick and they first fell in love all those years ago.

“He’s very much a people person. He was a salesman on the road all his life,” she said proudly.

After retiring at age 66 and soon going stir crazy, Bob took a part-time job at Shaw’s, where Colleen retired six years ago. Last September, sitting in the supermarket’s break room, Bob scratched a lottery ticket he’d purchased and, lo and behold, won $100,000.

“His first sentence was, ‘Now I’m going to go buy a new truck!” Colleen recalled with a much-needed chuckle. “He certainly did enjoy it from September through last week.”

The shiny new Toyota Tacoma sits in the couple’s driveway, a silent reminder of how suddenly life – for Colleen and Bob, for all of us – has changed.


Only subscribers are eligible to post comments. Please subscribe or to participate in the conversation. Here’s why.

Use the form below to reset your password. When you've submitted your account email, we will send an email with a reset code.

Augusta and Waterville news

Get news and events from your towns in your inbox every Friday.
  • This field is for validation purposes and should be left unchanged.