Sandra Ortega: "Someone ought to apologise to us for not letting us get close to our relatives"
The second anniversary of the great lockdown of March 2020 is approaching and the emotional wounds it caused have not yet closed for the children and grandchildren of those thousands of people, the vast majority of them elderly, who had to die alone. Sandra Ortega Sánchez (Sant Quirze del Vallès, 1979), a haematologist at the Blood and Tissue Bank of Bellvitge Hospital, has not been able to overcome her grief and the scene of the last day she saw her parents alive and the words she used the last time she was able to speak to them are still etched in her mind. It still hurts her to have had to bury them a few weeks later and without having been able to share the pain and receive the comfort of a hug from relatives and friends. In this interview there is a lot of unresolved pain, a suggestion to resolve it and a vital approach to the future because life goes on, as Sandra, who became pregnant in the midst of so much grief, knows well.
Is it strange for you to be here?
— Yes, it is a set that I see every day and now it feels strange to be here, and I thank you for the opportunity.
Well, let's start at the beginning.
— In March 2020 we went into lockdown. My parents, both 75 years old, very active and affable people, suddenly became irritable. My sister and I thought it was because they couldn't go out, but it turns out that this change of character is a symptom of covid and we kept calling them to cheer them up until one day they didn't pick up the phone. When we were about to break lockdown and go to see what was going on, my mother answered the phone and while we were talking she started coughing. And then we decided to go and see what was going on. When we got to their house we saw that they were as if... this image I can't forget, it was as if they had been let loose, all messed up..... They recognised us, but they didn't even know if they had had breakfast.
So they went to hospital.
— It was not that easy. The hotline had collapsed, they did not respond. In the end, we took them to Terrassa Hospital. They were totally disoriented, it was not them. I was at the reception, giving the data with the health cards, and I saw that they were taking them inside. And when I went to give them a hug them a worker told me "You can't go through!" They had put a red line on the floor and I had crossed it. And I said: "But they are not looking at me!" I have that image of seeing them enter without turning to say goodbye, while the worker told me "You will receive news". It was March 22.
Were you able to talk to them on the phone?
— Yes, my father was put on oxygen and revived, and he wrote us messages and asked about my mother, because they were separated. With my mother, thanks to the nurses who collaborated, we were able to make some calls. I remember she would ask us, "How's the curve?" I don't know what he must have heard about the curve, and we would tell her it was going down, to encourage her, and I would tell her not to worry about us, to concentrate on breathing.... And it's hard for me to remember, because it's a subject that for many months I haven't been able to revisit, because to think that they were alone in there hurts so much.
And the day of the last call comes.
— My mother was choking a lot, with that inflammatory explosion.... And they told me that there was nothing to do, that they had to sedate her, that it was time for palliative care. I tried to negotiate with the doctor but it was no use, of course, and then I begged her, if it was the end, to please let us go, that we could put on as many gowns as were needed, but she told me that it could not be done.
It was the norm.
— She told me that if I wanted to, we could still talk, but it had to be at that time because the nurse was with my mother. And I find myself telling my mother to be quiet, and her telling me that she was tired and me telling her, "Well, go to sleep now." And I already knew she would sleep, but forever and ever. It's very hard when you know it's the last time you talk to your mother. She was suffering for the nurse, she told me that we had to hang up and I told her "Mum, let's talk some more". And she told me "We'll talk some other time". And that was the end of the conversation.
It's stuck in your brain, isn't it?
— It wasn't a conversation of just me talking and her listening to me. She would answer me and tell me that the nurse had to leave, as if to tell me that I was bothering her, and I would prolong the conversation by telling her, "We like to talk a lot" and then she told me "Yes, but she has to go". And then came the "Mum, let's talk some more" and her "We'll talk some other time". I don't know if she was aware that it was the last time we would talk. If she was, she wanted to leave it at that.
And she died a day and a half later.
— They called me and said, "That's it, she's gone." And that we could go, but only to pick up her wedding ring and cell phone. Meanwhile, my father was getting worse every day, and there had to be a change in the protocols because they let us in to see him, but only one person. My sister had an act of absolute generosity with me. "You go," she said. My father had a hard time breathing, he hardly spoke to me or asked about my mother, but at least I said goodbye to him in silence and these seconds with him gave me a lot of peace.
In few days, father and mother.
— My sister came home and at least we spent that day together. We were in a state of shock. On top of that, it was those first days when people went out to clap their hands at eight o'clock, to play bingo from balconies, to sing I will resist and the City Council made the slogan of "We'll make it". And I am very sorry, but all that hurt us, because we had not succeeded. It took them more than a month to give us the ashes.
And what can be done now?
— I thought very seriously that someday someone would have to apologise to us for not letting us say goodbye to our parents. It was one of the cruellest things that was done in those days. And if I am doing this it is so that it is talked about. We already know that it is very difficult for a politician to say "We made a mistake" and maybe I don't even expect it. But now that the fines are being paid back, doesn't anyone think about us, about a decision that was very cruel?
You are a doctor and you know what it means when relatives go into hospital.
— Absolutely. But when I think that my parents died alone, without being able to see their loved ones one last time, it still hurts so much. And for those of us who have been left behind, this has been a very cruel thing to do. Sometimes I think it would be nice to have a gathering for all of us who were not able to say goodbye to our parents or grandparents.
After a while, you went back to work.
— Yes, after a few days. The whole hospital became a covid hospital, so that didn't help me to get my parents out of my mind either. And there I made another discovery.
— That we are not very good at accompanying people's pain. Some people, with the best of intentions, told me "Don't worry, it will pass". In reality, a simple "I sympathise with you" or even "What happened to you is a bummer" is much more comforting, because it acknowledges that you are having a hard time. An "I don't know what to say to you" would be great too, or "I cry with you". On top of that, since there was no funeral, you couldn't hug anyone. I met one of my best friends, who is also a doctor and lives nearby, at the garbage containers, and there, half hidden from the police who passed by and from the neighbours who watched from the balconies, which also happened, we hugged each other.
And with time, this uneasiness did not pass.
— No, because the first few months you live in a state of autopilot, and you go to work and live a normal life. But months later... you know that first thought you have in the morning, those seconds when you wake up and say to yourself "I'm not well but I don't know why", until you think "Oh, right, my parents...", and you get that lump in your throat? I sometimes thought "What else can happen to us?" But I didn't want to say it because maybe more things could happen [laughs]. And because, at the end of the day, I have many things for which to thank my colleagues, my friends and family, many people in Sant Quirze, where my parents were very dear to me.
And then came a twist in the script.
— Yes, in June, quite unexpectedly, I became pregnant. I was taking contraceptives, and with the emotional turmoil, I took three pills and got pregnant? It happened to me, a doctor, and after many years of avoiding pregnancy.
We already have the "What else can happen".
— Suddenly, another bombshell in my life. At first, honestly, it was not easy, and we had to make a decision, but then we changed our mindset. Of course, I was sad and at the same time I was excited about the pregnancy. These are things that may not seem compatible, but the fact is that there were times when I was excited and suddenly everything that was still on top of me came to me. Suddenly I was no longer a daughter and I had to become a mother. I became very susceptible to the comments, and if I was happy I thought I was betraying a little the pain of the loss of my parents, and in September I stopped. Lucky for me I had psychological help. And in January 2021 Mar was born.
In the end, rather than being sad about the death of your parents, you are sad that you were not able to say goodbye to them.
— If they had died in an accident, or of a heart attack, there is nothing you can do. But that I, and so many people like me, could not say goodbye and that they died alone was someone's decision. Sometimes my sister and I say to each other, "We just understand each other".
How is Mar?
— She is very well. I suffered thinking that because she cried so much during pregnancy I would get a melancholic child, but no, she is a very cheerful child.
Do you think it's true that what doesn't kill you makes you stronger?
— At least for me, yes, I feel stronger. Sometimes I used to take things too much to heart, and now I take them more calmly. Or you used to say to yourself carpe diem but you didn't practice it. Now, on the other hand, it's how I live. With my sister we don't give each other material gifts anymore, we only give each other experiences, going to the theatre, going on a trip.... We give each other time together, we made this deal.
What about your partner?
— Gonzalo was an essential support. Without him, maybe I would have fallen into a depression. And he, in the middle of the pandemic, was hit by a huge increase in the rent for his shop [laughs]. What else can happen? But we have to make the most of the time we have because tomorrow may never come. And let me give a big hug to all those who have suffered because of covid, and especially to those who suffered in March and April 2020.