Kerry Evans and her sister Judith Krane were closer than most siblings.
- The rise in COVID-19 infections has forced ACT Health to prohibit hospital visits without an exemption
- Kerry Evans' application for exemption was initially rejected, but eventually she was able to be with her dying sister
- Canberra Health Services says it's a challenge to work out who should be granted an exemption and who should not
When Kerry's mother died when she was just five, Judith — who was a young adult by then — adopted her, going on to raise her.
In 2021, just after Christmas, Judith was moved from a nursing home to The Canberra Hospital after a long battle with cancer.
There, doctors found multiple tumours in her brain.
At that point, the treatment team couldn't tell Kerry how long her sister had left to live and feared she might never wake up.
So, when Judith was moved to palliative care, Kerry immediately applied for an exemption to be by her side.
It came as a shock when she was rejected.
"I got a very quick response back saying I didn't meet the risk criteria," Kerry said.
"I was absolutely beside myself every night not knowing if I would be able to see my sister the next day, or if she'd be alive the next day."
Kerry Evans's exemption to visit her sister who was receiving palliative care at Canberra Hospital was originally declined due to strict COVID-19 restrictions. (ABC News: Adam Kennedy)
The email from Canberra Health Services suggested Kerry call her sister, but due to the brain injury, Judith was unable to speak.
"There were no steps, there was nothing in the email to suggest what you could do," she said.
When she did call, Kerry said it was next to impossible to get a doctor or nurse caring for her sister on the phone.
"I do understand they're understaffed due to COVID, but given she was in a state where we weren't even sure if she'd wake up, not being able to get a daily update caused so much anxiety and so much stress," she said.
"We just didn't know how she was."
Exemption process 'trickiest part of COVID response'
Exemptions to visit someone in hospital in the ACT are only being granted for a very small and specific number of cases, including those at the end of their life in palliative care.
It is a step that has been taken to limit the spread of COVID-19, with new known cases of the virus reaching a record high for Canberra yesterday.
Currently, exemptions to visit someone in hospital on compassionate grounds are applied for via email, as detailed on the ACT government's COVID-19 website.
For those overseeing this process, the difficulty comes in defining at what point a person is considered in their last few days of life, Executive Director of Patient Support Services at Canberra Hospital Karen Grace said.
"The consideration of exemptions is probably one of the trickiest parts of this COVID response, and certainly none of us take any of this lightly,' Ms Grace said.
Ms Grace said the time a person is in palliative care can vary widely, from as little as a few days to a period of months.
"Sometimes if death is not likely to happen within the next few days, then it is possible that we would not be able to support an exemption in some cases," she said.
Frustrations as positive COVID cases allowed on wards Hospitals in the ACT are under pressure as the rate of COVID-19 infection increases, forcing ACT Health to stop visitation without an exemption.(ABC News: Ian Cutmore)
Kerry said it had been frustrating that her fully vaccinated family, who had also tested negative with rapid antigen tests, were unable to visit the hospital while COVID-19 positive patients could be admitted to every ward.
In recent days, the way Canberra Health Services treat patients who are COVID-19 positive but need treatment for a different illness or injury has changed.
Those with respiratory symptoms of the virus will continue to be cared for in a designated COVID-19 ward or area, but others can be cared for in the most appropriate ward for their condition.
But Ms Grace said people who are being cared for at the hospital who have COVID-19 are subject to strict infection control measures which simply can't be extended to visitors.
"We really only want people on campus who need to be on campus where it is absolutely essential so that we can reduce the foot traffic," Ms Grace said.
"There is that risk of community transmission of COVID-19.
"We're hoping, despite the increase in cases, we can minimise transmission in hospital."
As such, there are 40 negative pressure rooms in the ACT, and capacity to treat at least 60 patients with COVID-19 symptoms in the dedicated wards across The Canberra Hospital and Calvary Public Hospital.
There are 41 beds in the intensive care unit, and an additional eight beds will soon be available at The Canberra Hospital with the completion of the ICU expansion project, scheduled for early February.
'There needs to be more information' Kerry Evans was able to visit her sister after her exemption application was reviewed last week.(Supplied)
On Thursday last week, Kerry's exemption application was reviewed and she was given permission to visit her sister.
"I burst out crying and said 'I'm so sorry I couldn't get here'," Kerry said.
The next day, Judith was discharged from hospital and returned to the nursing home.
She continued to receive palliative care until she died on Sunday, Kerry by her side until the end.
Kerry credited her own determination with ensuring she was there in those last days of Judith's life.
"For anyone not as pushy or as stubborn as I am, they might find it hard to know where to go to," she said.
"There needs to be more information about next steps if your exemption is rejected."
Ms Grace said if the hospital had any alternative to changing visitor restrictions, they would take it.
"We understand that this is really difficult, but at this point in time, the hospital is where we care for our sickest and most vulnerable," she said.
"Our planning at the moment is very much maintaining this level of restriction for the next four to six weeks and hoping that by then we will see a flattening of the curve."
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