‘No one could speak to her’: A lonely end to a long and full life

‘No one could speak to her’: A lonely end to a long and full life

11/15/2020

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The walls of Albert and Diane Steegstra’s Montrose home are filled with family photos. At the centre of many is Catharina Steegstra.

In one photo Catharina – known to all as Cathy – is surrounded by her three children, six grandchildren, seven great-grandchildren and six great-great-grandchildren.

Albert Steegstra in his Montrose home.Credit:Simon Schluter

Cathy would have turned 100 on Thursday. She died in August, joining the ranks of 655 elderly Victorians who perished in aged care with COVID-19.

Cathy lived quite a life. Born in 1920 in the Dutch town of Vandeem, she gave birth to her first child – Albert – in 1944, just as World War II was grinding to an end.

Cathy Steegstra on Mother’s Day in May, aged 99. This was three months before her death from coronavirus.

One afternoon during the war, she and her husband Hermannus – known as Harry after the couple moved to Australia in 1952 – had Albert in a stroller when a German Messerschmitt fighter aircraft tore towards them.

"They dragged me out of it and ran," says Albert, 76 years later, sitting in his Montrose backyard on a crisp spring morning. "When they came back to the pusher, it was all shot up."

Cathy had a long life. But it’s the way she died that is so heartbreaking for her family, and for hundreds of others who lost people in aged care homes in Melbourne.

She died alone, with none of her family around her to say farewell. She was surrounded by strangers covered in forbidding personal protective equipment. Cathy was one of 21 residents to die when coronavirus cut through Kilsyth’s Kirkbrae Presbyterian Homes in July. It was the city’s fifth-worst aged care outbreak.

"Five people had it, and then 10 had it, and it just spread like crazy," says Albert. In late July, the home rang to say Cathy had the virus, too.

"You were hoping for the best," says Albert, who 18 months before saw his mother go into hospital gravely ill, only to make a full recovery. "So we thought she might come good."

After Cathy tested positive, Albert could only talk to her on the phone. "We didn’t say that she had it. We don’t know if she knew – she maybe thought she had a bad cold."

Kirkbrae is near his home, so he normally saw Cathy most days for 10 or 15 minutes. Now, visits were halted.

Albert managed to talk to Cathy twice, perhaps three times in those final days. "I just said, 'I love you, Mum.' I'd never really say that, but I did the last few times; I think she understood."

In the last days of Cathy's life, breathing became a struggle, so she was put onto oxygen, says Albert. "But it meant she couldn't hear on the phone."

On August 4, five days after testing positive, Cathy Steegstra died. "Severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2," her death certificate notes as the cause of death. Albert wishes he could've been by his mother’s side when she went.

He doesn’t blame Kirkbrae. "They treated her well."

Cathy with her brother in the Netherlands in the 1920s.

The first case was a staff member and the virus swept through so rapidly that, of 140 staff, 54 caught it. Most remaining staff had to self-isolate. "We ended up with only five" who could work, says Colin Morrow, who was until recently the Victorian head of the church that runs Kirkbrae.

Cathy’s great-granddaughter Chantelle Steegstra says the way her "oma" (Dutch for grandmother) died upset all five generations of the family.

Cathy with her brother in the Netherlands in the 1930s.

"No one could speak to her, or even for her to have just at least heard one of our voices. Everyone coming in that room would have been a complete stranger to her, wearing full PPE," says Chantelle. "She was completely alone."

What pains Chantelle is that her great-grandmother's lonely death was avoidable had the Morrison government, which runs aged care, and the Andrews government more effectively stopped coronavirus hitting the most vulnerable in aged care.

She and the rest of the family would prefer to remember Cathy's life and legacy. Cathy and Harry left the Netherlands after the war and finally settled in Ringwood. There, the couple raised Albert, daughter Clazine, and Ron. Harry died in 1990.

"After Dad died, she used to say, 'It won’t be long, Dad, I’ll be there,' but she lasted another 30 years," says Albert. "I don’t know why she had such a good innings."

Five generations of the Steegstra family that Cathy (front left) began with husband Harry in 1944.

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