Alberta father-of-two dies after ‘non-essential’ heart surgery postponed due to COVID-19

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Jerry "Ched" Dunham died after plans to receive a pacemaker were postponed due to COVID-19.
Jerry “Ched” Dunham died after plans to receive a pacemaker were postponed due to COVID-19.

Jerry Dunham’s Facebook profile serves as a window into the frustration that plagued the final months of his life. 

In April, the 47-year-old Redcliff, Alta. native was informed that his plans to receive a pacemaker was being postponed due to the coronavirus pandemic — as were all other “non-essential” surgeries in the province.

For Dunham, the news was a devastating blow. The appointment with his doctor had been six months in the making, and the pacemaker surgery was supposed to be the start of reclaiming his life after his 2018 diagnosis with congestive heart failure. Dunham sat in the waiting room, hoping for the chance to ask his doctor questions — but was told by a receptionist that his doctor was “too busy” to see him. 

Jerry Dunham and Krista Lambier with their two daughters, Reydian and Atlin. Image courtesy of Krista Lambier.
Jerry Dunham and Krista Lambier with their two daughters, Reydian and Atlin. Image courtesy of Krista Lambier.

“Looks like COVID-19 might get me after all,” Dunham wrote to friends and family later that day. “…Heart surgery, [is] apparently considered non-essential. Now I know some say that’s nonessential but [it’s] pretty goddamn essential to me…I’m starting to freak out here. Wondering what I should do. So, I was basically told that the government is willing to risk my life to save my life. Let me say that again, my government told me they are willing to let me die, which according to them is for my own safety.”

In the following weeks, Dunham posted several times about the pandemic and his postponed surgery. The devoted father of two told friends he was “just trying to survive” and even shared a foreboding link to an article about B.C. resident, Chris Walcroft, who died after his kidney transplant was cancelled due to COVID-19

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Now, Dunham’s timeline is filled with videos from his celebration of life, filmed by friends and family who are left to share the story of how the man they affectionately called “Ched” or  “Cheddar” “slipped through the cracks” of the healthcare system — and paid the ultimate price. 

On May 30, Krista Lambier, Dunham’s former partner and the mother of his two daughters, 9-year-old Reydian and 5-year-old Atlin, was with her daughters at their trailer near Bruce Peninsula in Ontario when she noticed several missed calls from a number with Alberta area codes on her phone.

Lambier said Dunham’s health troubles had rendered him unable to work in their small town of Palmerston, Ont. In 2019, Dunham relocated to Alberta to live with his parents and find work, but would call and Facetime his daughters daily. 

Image courtesy of Krista Lambier.
Image courtesy of Krista Lambier.

Lambier thought Dunham had been calling her on a landline. When the 403 number appeared on her phone again, she answered, expecting to hear his voice. Instead, it was his mother, Karen, calling with the news that Dunham had suffered a heart attack, urging Lambier and the girls to come to Alberta right away. 

According to family, Dunham had given his uncle a ride back to his home in Medicine Hat. The pair, who were close in age, were very close, and were hanging out in the backyard when Dunham went into the garage and his uncle went inside the house. When Dunham’s uncle went to see him in the garage roughly 20 minutes later, he found him unconscious on the floor. He began chest compressions while waiting for an ambulance to arrive. 

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The next day, Lambier returned home to Palmerston and was preparing to make the three day drive to Medicine Hat with her daughters to see their father. However, on a phone call with Dunham’s parents and his neurologist and cardiologist, Lambier found out Dunham’s situation was much more dire than she had thought.

“It was the exact opposite of what I expected,” Lambier told Yahoo Canada. “They said there was no brain activity, and that they were going to try and keep him alive until the girls could come and say goodbye to their dad.”

Jerry "Ched" Dunham with his daughters. Image courtesy of Krista Lambier.
Jerry “Ched” Dunham with his daughters. Image courtesy of Krista Lambier.

When they arrived in Medicine Hat, Lambier did her best to prepare her daughters for the hospital.

“I was trying to be very transparent,” she told Yahoo Canada over the phone, through tears. “I told them that he would be lying in the bed, unresponsive – but they told me, ‘Mom, I’m on the blue ice team with dad, as soon as he hears my voice he’s going to wake up.’ They were bound and bent that they could bring him back.”

At the hospital, Lambier said a nurse approached the family and asked if they would like the cause of death to be listed as COVID-19. 

“I said no,” Lambier said. “I said, ‘You tested him at admittance….and it was negative. That would be a blatant lie.’”

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Lambier sat with Dunham’s parents as doctors took him off of life support and brought the girls in to have their final moments with their father. 

“It was the most devastating time of my life,” Lambier said. Reydian climbed into the hospital bed with her father, wrapped her arms around his head and cried, “Daddy, please come back. We came all the way from Ontario. Come back.” Atlin sat in the corner, holding her knees and rocking back and forth. Lambier carried her over to Dunham so that she could say her goodbyes. 

Dunham's "Blue Ice" Team. Each year Dunham would build a skating rink for his daughters, Reydian and Atlin. Image via Krista Lambier.
Dunham’s “Blue Ice” Team. Each year Dunham would build a skating rink for his daughters, Reydian and Atlin. Image via Krista Lambier.

Doctors told Lambier and Dunham’s parents that it could take hours for Dunham to pass. When Lambier woke up the next morning, Dunham’s parents Gerry and Karen had still not returned from the hospital. 

“I thought, ‘Oh god, maybe there’s been a miracle.’ If there’s any kind of magic in the world…” she said. Lambier went back to the hospital and sat with Dunham. She massaged him with essential oils and played him some of his favourite songs. Dunham, a gifted musician, had played for several bands and had opened for performers like Alice Cooper and Joan Jett. Before she left she played him audio of their daughters voices. 

Despite having had only 20 per cent function of his heart, Dunham died on June 7, two and a half days after being taken off life support. Two days after his death, his daughter Reydian celebrated her 9th birthday. A week later, it was Father’s Day. 

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Although family and friends were able to gather for a celebration of life, their grief has also come with waves of anger. According to Lambier, there were no follow-up appointments or check-ins with Dunham’s doctors after plans for his pacemaker surgery were postponed. 

On April 18, two days after Dunham’s doctors appointment, a cousin drafted a letter to Medicine Hat city officials pleading for their help in scheduling his pacemaker surgery. 

Image courtesy of Krista Lambier.
Image courtesy of Krista Lambier.

“He needs to live, his hope was getting a pacemaker. Hope is all gone and his chances of making it are slim to none. Who decides this, who lives and dies?” Dunham’s cousin wrote in an email provided to Yahoo Canada. “People are dying that can be saved and we’re letting it happen… Can you help him? The least you can do is fight for the people waiting for answers but won’t be heard.”

While the family searches for answers, Gwen Wirth, a representative for the AHS said an investigation into Dunham’s death is underway. 

“This is a tragic incident and Alberta Health Services extends its most sincere condolences to the family and friends of the individual. AHS is committed to providing safe, quality care to our patients,” Wirth wrote in a statement to Yahoo Canada. “AHS has initiated an internal review to determine all details of this incident. AHS will act on any recommendations from the internal review that could help improve similar situations in the future. These recommendations will be shared with the family, and we will continue to be available to them to answer any questions or concerns they may have.” 

Lambier and members of Dunham’s family are determined to share his story in hopes of preventing another family from experiencing the same tragedy. 

Image via GoFundMe.
Image via GoFundMe.

“I want people to know that when it comes to your own health or the health of a family member, you need to be a strong advocate for your own health. You can’t just trust the white coat. They’re only humans, too. They’ve got their own families…it’s their job to help us in the service industry of being a doctor,” Lambier said. “If we know something is wrong with our body and you’ve got a feeling that something’s wrong, advocate for your own health, because it’s your right.  You have a right to healthcare in this country.” 

Family and friends have been helping support Lambier and the girls, and have created a GoFundMe on behalf of Reydian and Atlin Dunham. 

Lambier has been overwhelmed and grateful for the support shown to her and her daughters, but said that she still feels as though she hasn’t had a chance to come to terms with Dunham’s death. 

Lambier and the girls arrived home to Palmerston earlier this month after spending a month in Alberta with Dunham’s family. The family had hoped to travel to the Yukon, a place beloved by both Dunham and Lambier, but travel restrictions have put those plans on hold. At home in Palmerston, there are gardens to tend to, cousins for the girls to play with, and hopefully, a chance for healing to begin. 

To visit the GoFundMe for Reydian and Atlin Dunham, click here.

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