Updated April 4, 10:33 am: Lisa Ewald, a 54-year-old nurse who worked for more than 20 years at Henry Ford Health System in Detroit, died this week after telling friends and family she’d tested positive for COVID-19.
Remembered as a passionate patient advocate, a matriarch who boosted early morning morale by cracking jokes and wasn't afraid to ruffle feathers, Ewald is believed to be one of the first known healthcare workers in Michigan to die from complications related to the virus.
Ewald told her neighbor, Alexis Fernandez, that she believed she was exposed to the virus around March 24, when she interacted with a patient who later tested positive for coronavirus. Fernandez says Ewald immediately tried to get tested herself, but was told by her employer that she couldn’t get a test until she started showing symptoms.
“The fact that they wouldn’t test her, she was back and forth [to the hospital twice] trying to get a test. She was sicker than a dog and it took forever to get the results," Fernandez said.
“My husband and I were the ones who found her, along with one of the nurses at Henry Ford,” Fernandez said Friday. “We live next door to each other, we’ve been best friends for 20 years. And you know, I hate to pitch Henry Ford to the curb, but after reading [back] our text messages this morning, it was just handled so badly over there," Fernandez said.
Fernandez believes Ewald was tested a few days after she’d been exposed, and on Monday, March 30th, she texted Fernandez the positive test result. By Tuesday evening, Fernandez says Ewald had stopped responding to her texts.
“Tuesday night, I sent a text message saying ‘How are you doing today?’ And she didn’t reply. But I was right next door, you can see through the kitchen window. Her lights were on, the tv was on, the garage was open. And I thought, ‘Well, maybe she’s sleeping.’ Because she was having erratic sleeping patterns. I’d charged over there a number of times and she’d say ‘Hey you woke me up!" Fernandez said.
By Wednesday morning Fernandez says a nurse from Henry Ford came to Ewald's home in Dearborn for a wellness check.
"We were knocking on (Ewald's) door and she wasn’t answering.” To get inside, Fernandez says they used a spare key Ewald gave her. “And there she was sitting on the couch, gone. It was horrible. Gone. I started yelling, ‘Lisa! Lisa!’ She didn’t move. And I shouted to the nurse, ‘Aren’t you going to take her pulse?’ But I knew she was gone. And she was there, sitting there. She was only 54 years old. Her birthday is tomorrow.”
Fernandez is angry Ewald couldn’t get tested sooner.
“The moment she was exposed, she should have been given the test. Instead of having to wait until symptoms appeared. You know, it’s, to me, unconscionable. She wasn’t given the test [immediately] despite having worked at the hospital in that capacity. And it cost her her life," Fernandez said.
Being tested immediately, as opposed to a few days later, may not have actually been enough to save Ewald’s life, because it likely wouldn’t have altered the progression of the illness. But the testing delays speak to a frustration echoed by many front line healthcare workers in Michigan and nationally, who say the testing and personal protective equipment shortages put them at greater risk.
A spokesperson for Henry Ford Health system released an updated statement Friday evening, regarding Ewald's passing and protocols around when healthcare workers are being tested:
"There are not adequate words to describe how saddened we are. Our hearts ache for our employee's family, friends and colleagues. As healthcare providers on the frontlines of this pandemic, we know we are not immune to its traumatic effects. We continue to fight with every resource we have to protect our employees and provide the safest care to our patients. Because of patient privacy obligations, we cannot share additional information. Regarding employee testing, we adhere strictly to CDC guidelines. Currently, the CDC recommends testing employees only when they become symptomatic. Whether at work or at home under self-isolation, if an employee begins experiencing symptoms, they are urged to contact Employee Health and arrange for immediate testing. Meantime, we strongly urge anyone who is at home with symptoms to go to their nearest emergency room immediately if symptoms worsen, including a rising fever, uncontrolled cough or respiratory problems."
Ewald was a “huge animal lover” who was passionate about travel, gardening, and nursing, Fernandez says. “She always stepped up to the plate...Just a dedicated employee and healthcare worker. I mean, my god, my dog was dying, and she came and hooked him up to an IV four times a day and nursed him back to health. She just loved everyone and everything.”
“For our family right now, I can tell you that this loss is so hard,” said Ewald’s niece, Aubree Farmer, who lives in Tennessee. “We love her so much, and because of the quarantine laws and having to stay home, we can’t even properly grieve or say goodbye to her," Farmer said.
Farmer says Ewald leaves behind “a great group of family and friends, and eight nieces and four nephews,” as well as a sister, among others.
A coworker at Henry Ford recalled Ewald as a compassionate nurse with topnotch instincts born of years of experience – if you were going to be sick in the hospital, the coworker added, you wanted Lisa caring for you.
Several of Ewald’s coworkers received an email Wednesday afternoon from a Henry Ford administrator, informing them of her passing; some coworkers were already aware.
Meanwhile, a Detroit VA Medical Center employee in their 70s also died due to complications from coronavirus, the VA confirmed Friday morning.
"These tragedies bring home exactly how nurses and other healthcare professionals across Michigan and around the world are risking their lives every day in this pandemic," Jamie Brown, RN and president of the Michigan Nurses Association, said in a statement Friday. "The loss of these two nurses illustrates even more how urgent it is for every possible resource to be used to protect nurses and other frontline workers. Every nurse has them and their families on their mind and in their hearts today.”
Editor's note: Henry Ford Health System is one of Michigan Radio's corporate sponsors.