December 3, 2023

‘She will always be our hero’ – family of Kilkenny healthcare worker who died fighting spread of Covid-19

The family of a Kilkenny mother who died while fighting on the frontline of the battle to stem the spread of Covid-19 have paid an emotional tribute to their “hero”.

Catherine Whelan (51) and fellow healthcare worker at St Luke’s General Hospital Jim Kenny (49) died within 24 hours of each other in Mid-April. They were the first two healthcare workers in Ireland to die of Covid-19.

In a moving interview in today’s Sunday Independent, Catherine’s proud daughter described her as “a hero who battled bravely to stop this virus spreading”.

Mechaela Whelan Hickey said her mother was completely dedicated to stopping the advance of Covid-19 as she carried out cleaning duties at St Luke’s.

Catherine’s husband Joseph and their daughter said they were “unbelievably proud” of her courage and commitment.

“People who do the cleaning in hospitals were not given enough credit, but now they’re getting the recognition they deserve. Each day they face this virus head-on,” said Mechaela (21). “My mother had a very big heart and she cared so much for others. I believe she died trying to help other people.”

In her last communication with her family, Catherine spoke calmly on a FaceTime call from her hospital bed to tell her loved ones to look after each other.

She had been looking forward to the birth of her first grandchild, a baby for their son Christopher and his partner Shauna. She had regularly shared her delight at the prospects of becoming a grandmother with her work colleagues and she spoke again of the child in her final call.

Her husband Joe said he and his wife were “best friends” from the time they began going out together at the age of 19.

He had met her when she was named Catherine Whelan and was working in The Black Cat pub in the city. Joe lived in Lord Edward Street in the city while Catherine came from Ballavarra, The Rower.

He recalled their happiness when they moved into their family home in Butt’s Green.

“We did everything together and went everywhere together,” he said.

Mechaela said her mother became ill on the first Friday in April with vomiting and body aches, but she did not have a temperature and had spoken to a doctor on the phone.

By the time Monday came, the vomiting had stopped and she went to work that night, feeling weak. She was sent back home shortly after reporting for work. She was in touch with a doctor in the following days and on Thursday she had a test for Covid-19 and was told the next day it was positive. She was advised to self-isolate at home and she isolated herself in a bedroom.

In the days that followed she felt weaker and her breathing, too, became weaker. On the advice of her doctor, the following Wednesday, Joe drove her to St Luke’s Hospital.

“I roared crying when she was going as I had a feeling in my gut we weren’t going to get her back,” said Mechaela.

Catherine telephoned from hospital to tell Joe she had pneumonia. She began receiving oxygen the next day and seemed to perk up.

But on Friday, she had the FaceTime conversation with Joe and Mechaela. “She was so calm. She told us that she loved us. I think she knew she was going,” she said.

Later, her daughter sent her a text message to give her a boost, telling her she was loved and to stay strong. But, by nightfall, Catherine was on a ventilator in intensive care and she did not regain consciousness.

On Monday, Mechaela, Christopher, Joe and Joe’s sister Theresa wore full protective clothing to visit Catherine. They were told the grim news there was “no chance” of a recovery. “I was wailing like a banshee,” said Mechaela.

The distraught daughter later felt angry at the impending loss of her mother but she also realised her mother had received “the very best care”.

On Wednesday, April 15, Mechaela and Joe wore full protective clothing and gloves as they held her hands to say a final goodbye. The ventilator was switched off at 12.05pm.

Mechaela said: “The priest was there and we said a decade of the rosary. Her heart stayed beating for another 25 minutes. I remember telling her it was okay to cross over. She slipped away peacefully.”

At the funeral home in New Ross, a few kilometres from the Whelan family home in Ballavarra, Catherine’s brother Sean organised proceedings. The mourners included Catherine’s mother Josie, sister Nora, and brothers Declan and Pat and many other loved ones.

The hearse travelled from New Ross, through The Rower, Graiguenamanagh and Gowran before being met at the cemetery in Kilkenny by a guard of honour of healthcare workers from St Luke’s Hospital carrying red and white roses. People practised social distancing as they watched from the roadside.

The day after her mother died, Mechaela received a telephone call telling her that a test she had several days earlier showed she, too, was positive for Covid-19. The next day, Joe was informed he also was positive. Thankfully, neither of them had become seriously ill.

The pain of Catherine’s loss continues.

Mechaela said: “Our mother was not a statistic. She died a hero. She will always be our hero.”


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