On Friday, March 12, one of the kindergarten teachers in Törökbálint, Magdolna Fórizsné Matuz, woke up with a cough. On that day, the number of new coronavirus infections in Hungary had just reached another daily record with more than 9,000 new cases, bringing the third and most severe wave of the epidemic close to its peak.
Despite her morning weakness, Magdolna did not think about staying at home in their sunny family house, where she lived with her husband and youngest daughter. While the government had already been suggesting home office wherever it was possible, there was still on-call duty in the kindergarten: there were fewer children, but in the morning or afternoon Magdolna still went to work every day. The 50-year-old kindergarten teacher, who always paid attention to the harmony of her clothes and accessories, was not a sickly person anyway, she almost never went on a sick leave. She would be crawling with the kids at the kindergarten even at the age of sixty – she often joked with her own children in their twenties.
Eventually, however, this Friday became Magdolna’s last day of work.
As long as she could, she wrote a diary about her aggravating symptoms, which she shared with the members of the local Baptist community led by her husband. On Friday, after work, she still ran to the pharmacy for vitamins, her fever went up to 38 degrees by the evening, and, on Sunday, her coronavirus test was positive. On Wednesday, the antiviral drug Favipiravir seemed to improve her condition. A week after her first symptoms, she only planned to go for a lung X-ray to the hospital, but she was diagnosed with such severe inflammation that she had to stay. She was put on a ventilator on Monday morning and, in the afternoon, her family had already been told over the phone that Magdolna was dying, it was time to say goodbye.
She died on March 26, shortly before midnight, exactly 2 weeks after the first symptoms had appeared. In Hungary, besides Magdolna, 274 people died on the same day, and nearly 30,000 have lost their lives since the outbreak – relative to the population, one of the highest number of people in the world. Who were the victims? And what happened to them from their first symptoms to their death? In recent weeks, Direkt36 journalists have spoken to people who had lost a loved one due to the coronavirus: parents, grandparents, siblings, spouses and friends. This is their story.
Grieving family members shared more than twenty personal stories with us, from the different waves of the coronavirus epidemic, from the Hungarian capital and from rural villages, about people with chronic illnesses and previously completely healthy people, about older and younger victims. No matter how different the individual cases were, several families faced similar problems and difficulties during the course of the disease. There were some recurring elements in their stories:
- When the first symptoms appeared, it was difficult to reach their GP
- Instead of rapid testing, patients often received unprofessional advice
- It was difficult to get information about the condition of the family member in the hospital
- The viral situation has made post-mortem administration more burdensome, both emotionally and financially
Many family members feel sorrow not only because of the death of their loved ones, but also about the way they died. “It’s not that we can’t cope with a loved one dying of a disease,” one of them said. “What is very painful that it was a fucking pointless death.”
I. Useless cures – Grated apple and painkillers instead of Covid tests
By the time spring arrived in a small village next to the Romanian border with a population of less than 600 residents, everyone got used to wearing a mask when going to the only grocery store. Some even put gloves on, they used hand-sanitizer, and still, this was not enough to stop the spread of the coronavirus. „I think there was no one in the village, who had not gotten through the virus,” a woman in her 50s, who herself felt unwell several times, said.
It was in January, when she first contacted her GP, who, before the appearance of the coronavirus, had visited the village once per week, coming from the nearest town 7 kilometres away. However, after the outbreak of Covid, he only consulted patients over the phone. For the woman who had fever, he ordered a Covid test in January, but it showed negative results. A couple of weeks later, in February, however, the woman got sick again. This time, she also lost her taste and smell. The GP then prescribed medicine against pneumonia, but he did not have her tested again. If the first test was negative in January, the second would have the same result anyway – he told the woman on phone, who, in the end, tried to cure herself following the advice of her neighbour: „She said, if you couldn’t feel the taste of horse radish, then grate some and eat that,” the woman told us.
Soon her brother, aged 53, also got sick. Everyone in the village knew him: he had been a member of the local government for more than 10 years and he also held animals. „He slaughtered a lot of pigs, because there was a need for it. We have no butcher here in the village, so my brother prepared sausages, people could buy it from him, and half of the village had done so, both Gypsies and Hungarians,” his sister told us. On the first of March, the man had still been working, but he got so week by the next day, that, according to her sister, he was unable to lift even his head up, and he had breathing difficulties. In the hospital, they tested him positive of Covid. He spent 13 days on a ventilator and died at the end of March – he was the first casualty of the coronavirus in the village.
Before the publication of our article, we asked the GP over the phone, why he didn’t order a test for the woman who turned to him with Coronavirus symptoms. „That woman is not a reliable person, this is not how it happened. But you write whatever you want,” the GP told Direkt36. Two hours later, however, the woman who had shared her story with us called us saying that the GP had called the mayor of the village and said that if his name appeared in any article, he would quit his praxis. Since the woman is afraid that her village and also the neighbouring ones would be left without a local doctor, we maintained their anonymity.
The story of this family is not unprecedented. The majority of the family members who talked to Direkt36 faced several similar problems at the beginning of the sickness, when they turned to their doctors. While the local healthcare sector, overwhelmed by the hundreds of vacant praxes, was further burdened with the pandemic, the official government advice stayed the same since the appearance of Covid in Hungary: in case of coronavirus symptoms, people should contact their local doctors over the phone, who, if suspecting Covid, orders a test for the patient. But not only people from small villages, but also from bigger cities told Direkt36 that they could not reach their GPs at all. And from those, who actually managed to do so, many did not receive proper advice to treat coronavirus, or they could only arrange testing late, or in private ways.
To a man, for example, aged 71, living in the city centre of Budapest, at the beginning of his illness, his local doctor only suggested eating grated apples to cure his diarrhoea. According to the doctor, the family would have had to wait 3-5 days for having the man tested at home, and, in the end, after multiple phone calls, the family members managed to get an appointment for a rapid test on a testing bus. Although the test result turned out to be positive, the GP still advised to take nothing more but charcoal pills, and to wait a little bit more with the coronavirus medicine. By the next day, however, the man got so unwell that the ambulance was called. By that time, the family could no longer reach the GP.
There were other cases ending with the death of the patients when GPs suggested painkillers to severe muscle pain, and energy drinks to fatigue. When a former journalist, Ernő Klecska, aged 57, had fever in last November, his local doctor recommended staying at home while monitoring his own symptoms.
“The doctor said that it is unnecessary to ask for testing or to go to the hospital, because by the time the results arrive, Ernő would heal anyway. But in case he got worse, he should go to the hospital” – Zsuzsanna Hankó, a friend of Ernő’s said. Zsuzsanna spoke of Ernő as a really compliant person who trusted the advice of his doctor. However, when he started feeling so unwell that he actually went to the hospital, his circulation collapsed in a couple of days. “It is not evident that someone can tell when they actually need medical assistance,” said Zsuzsanna, who felt that they had been left alone.
After the first symptoms appeared, the family of Magdolna – the kindergarten teacher in Érd – tried to act as soon as possible and to do everything they can for her recovery. However, the long weekend of March 15, a Hungarian public holiday, made their case harder. On the day of the first symptoms, on Friday, they tried to reach the GP in vain. They were only able to contact their assistant on Facebook, who suggested to seek the on-duty medical service in Érd. The service, however, could not order testing because “their system lacked the necessary form,” said Magdolna’s daughter, Boglárka. “At that point, we decided that we should get private testing instead, 18500 Forints (52 euros), it is expensive, but we rather went there on Sunday, so mom can get Favipiravir as soon as possible.” The on-duty medical service in Érd told Direkt36 that only a GP could have asked for testing.
When already possessing the positive test result, Magdolna could reach the doctor on Tuesday, who still only suggested to take two painkillers. “My mom had to ask directly if they couldn’t prescribe the Coronavirus medicine instead? On this level, I mean on this level too, the whole thing is really messed up,” said Boglárka.
In the end, they could make the doctor prescribe Favipiravir, which Magdolna started to take on Tuesday, while her family members tried to gather further information from the internet and from acquaintances working in the healthcare system. They tried everything that could be done at home. They, for example, tried to measure oxygen saturation of Magdolna’s blood, first with a phone application. Later, a friend lent them a more professional pulse oximeter.
This was the tool that Béla Merkely, rector of Semmelweis University in Budapest, had recommended last November for monitoring the symptoms at home. If the rate remains above 90 percent, then “most likely there is no problem,” said Merkely. The family of Magdolna checked constantly if the oxygen level decreases so much that Magdolna has to go to hospital. One of their acquaintances could even make her a reservation for pulmonary X-ray in a couple of days. Boglárka thinks it was “very lucky” that they got so much help, but she has been wondering ever since: what should they have done differently in order to save the life of her mother?
II. Everyday uncertainty – The hospital phone just kept ringing and ringing
Last October, Erzsébet Fehérné Láczai was horrified each evening to sit down next to the phone. During 23 days, at the same time, at 5 pm she called the number of the South-Pest Cetral Hospital where her husband laid in anaesthesia, on a ventilator.
“Ours was a late love. We had been searching for a long time, but we both felt it immediately when we found each other,” said Erzsébet, who was 39 when she had met her husband. One year later, their son was born, who is now 15 years old. They love nature, the three of them went hiking and fishing very often. Erzsébet’s husband started to complain about back pain at the end of last September, after a weekend of fishing – back then, they only thought he might have only gotten a cold. A couple of days later, however, when he went out to the bathroom of their house one morning, he collapsed from weakness. Erzsébet was frightened, she barely could lift her husband from the floor and take him to the bed. They did not wait for the service of the local doctor in the afternoon, they called for an ambulance. “In the afternoon, he could still walk to the ambulance on his own foot,” said Erzsébet. That was the last time she saw her husband.
In the next few days, they could still be in touch, but after her husband got to the intensive care unit, Erzsébet could only call the information line of the hospital. “I was terrified. On the one hand, because I didn’t know what they would say, and on the other, because I didn’t know, if they would answer the phone at all. And it just kept ringing and ringing… and all the while, I was looking at the clock, as it was approaching 6 pm,” she recalled one of the hardest times of her life. Like all relatives of people in the intensive care unit, Erzsébet had only the 60 minutes between 5 and 6 pm to get some information about the state of her husband.
“I either managed to speak with a doctor, or not at all. Whether they said two words or three sentences, depended on which doctor could come to the phone and how much time they had. Twice, I tried to call in the morning, but both times they shouted that there was an assigned time period when relatives could call, and then they hung up,” said Erzsébet.
Although Covid patients got to hospitals in different states and with different symptoms, it seems from the relatives’ stories that they went through somewhat similar experiences in the hospitals: from the first pulmonary X-rays to the Covid ward, from the usage of different respiratory supporting medical equipment to the intensive care unit.
From the perspective of the relatives, hospital residence had two very different stages. In the Covid ward, even if the patient receives oxygen from an oxygen mask, they are usually able to communicate over the phone or online with their relatives. After getting to the intensive care unit, it is up to the medical staff how much the relatives can learn about the situation of their loved ones.
The majority of the relatives talking with Direkt36 said that their anxiety due to the virus was further increased by the uncertainty and the lack of information. (The information protocol is not universal, in some hospitals the relatives have more, and in others, they have less time to call, while there are a couple of places where it is recommended to make contact via email.)
There were many cases when the family didn’t even get answers to the most essential questions. A man, for example, hasn’t managed to find out until this very day whether his grandfather, who died in October, was put on a ventilator or not. A husband has spent months trying to get documents from the hospital to find out what had happened to his wife in the days before she passed away.
Others, for example Éva Gyuricza, said that their relatives might have gotten infected in the hospital. Éva has been taking care of her 83-year-old mother, who had been living with dementia since 2017. “She played with her grandchildren, solved crosswords, loved chocolate and stupid rollicking music. And she adored drag queen shows, I think she was the most tolerant old little lady in this world,” Éva said laughing.
By last June, however, they could no longer take care of her mother properly, so she got moved into a care home in Budapest. There had been a couple of infections here earlier, but her mother did not get the virus. When, in January, she was taken to hospital due to chest pain, there were no cases in the care home. After her health improved, Éva wanted to visit her before she is taken back from the hospital. To be able to do this, her mother was tested twice – and while the first test was negative, a couple of days later, the second became positive, and Éva’s mother was taken to the Covid ward.
In the end, Éva was able to see her mother only two weeks later, but at that point her state worsened so much that this became a farewell visit. “The nursing department of the Margit Hospital was reorganized into a Covid ward. When I went to see mom, there was only a feeder catheter placed in her nose. And it all felt like they were saying that she’s 83 years old, with advanced dementia and a couple of other illnesses, let’s just let it go,” said Éva angrily. She also listed a couple of medical regulations that she thought weren’t properly complied with in the hospital. “The ambulance carries a Covid infected old lady, and the staff’s protective suit is torn apart in the back. Some of them didn’t even have gloves on”. We contacted the Saint Margit Hospital but we received no answers.
Magdolna’s family did not have a particularly good experience either. After the pulmonary X-ray, the kindergarten teacher was kept in a the pulmonary sanatorium in Törökbálint. Two days later, around noon, when her husband asked about her state, she only texted him that she “was struggling to breathe” – so her husband called the doctor to ask if they could give her an oxygen mask. “After that, the nurses told mom off for complaining to her husband instead of alarming them,” said Boglárka, who was even more hurt by a comment that a doctor later made. “They said, that they saw that mom had no will to live, no courage; that she kept taking the oxygen mask off. A friend of mine in the Honvéd Hospital however told me that this is a state when her brain does not get enough oxygen, and one must learn how to breathe with that mask. She didn’t take it off on purpose, she didn’t want to die.”
Many family members also pinpointed that, despite being overwhelmed, the hospital staff tried to do everything they could to save their relatives, and they managed to stay benign even in such hard times. For example, a woman is grateful for a doctor who, in the middle of the rush, dedicated some time to help her sick father answer the phone, so they can speak with each other for one last time.
III. The last visit – You can’t even breath when you cry in protective clothing
On the afternoon of March 22, Magdolna’s husband and their three children arrived together to the National Koranyi Institute of TB and Pulmonology. The kindergarten teacher was taken over to this hospital in the morning, and the family was encouraged by their friends working in health institutions that Korányi is very good institute, Magdolna “was taken to the best place possible.” She had been on a ventilator only for a few hours when the family got shocking news from the hospital: she is dying, they should go to say goodbye.
“We had to put on the protective clothing, my hands were shaking, I did not really understand what they said, what I should do not to get infected. In this protective clothing, if you cry, you can’t breathe,” recalled Boglárka their last visit. “Seeing my own mom like this, on a ventilator, it is simply horrible. You can’t be prepared for this. It is not like in the movies.”
The family members were only allowed to go to Magdolna’s room separately. She was in a room with three beds, but she had only one roommate, a man who only needed an oxygen-mask and was still conscious. “Poor man, he needed to go to the toilet exactly when I went into mom’s room to say goodbye. He was told he can’t get out of the bed, otherwise his oxygen level decreases, so he had to do it in a bedpan. At this moment, I rather left the room, so from all the family, I spent the shortest time in mom’s room,” said Boglárka who had only 4-5 minutes to say goodbye to her mother.
There were relatives who did not even get this much of an opportunity. Cecilia Müller, chief medical officer, admitted in a circular sent to hospitals in November of 2020 that “the restriction of the patient’s right to contact caused many complaints” and she ordered the hospitals to provide opportunity for family members for communication and a special visit if a patient is dying. However, according to family members who talked to Direkt36, in some institutions, relatives still face difficulties weeks and months after Müller’s letter.
Nóra Megyesi, for example, wanted to visit her father in the Bács-Kiskun County Hospital, but she never had the chance to do so. Her father, János was 76 years old, lived in Nagykőrös with his wife, who was attacked by some type of disease in August 2020: she lost 30 kilograms in 3 months, and her family suspected she had pancreatic cancer. János was taking care of his wife for months. Meanwhile, János himself got fever time to time as well. But he never wanted to hear about going to the doctor, he declared that he is not ill.
„He was really active all the time, he always took care of everything. Since he passed away, it seems that everything breaks down in the house. The boiler, the electric wires… the light bulbs burn out one after another. It propbably used to be the same when he was alive, but he fixed it before we would notice anything,” said Nóra, who realized that her father was in a really bad condition when she took her two daughters to visit their grandparents last year, on Santa’s Day. His father tried to ignore his high fever, and waited until his grandchildren fell asleep to put their presents from Santa to the window.
It was the 14th of December when he woke up feeling so unwell that he asked his wife to call the family doctor. After an examination, the doctor urgently called an ambulance. At the hospital, his health worsened so rapidly that her daughter was suggested to write and e-mail to the head of department and ask for a special visit. Nóra was surprised by the bureaucratic procedure but she was told that this was the policy of the hospital. „I immediately wrote the e-mail, at 1:11 PM. But I haven’t received an answer to this very day. And my father died next morning. How is it possible that somebody does not read the emails on Friday afternoon and this results in others missing one of their most important moments in life?”
Some were not even notified when their relatives were dying – and there were cases when family members were not even informed about the death of their loved one. Erzsébet, who tried to get information via phone about her husband every evening at 5 PM from the South-Pest Hospital Center last October, received very similar information every time, for three weeks: her husband is in a very bad condition, and there’s no change in his state. But when Erzsébet called on the 29th of October, she only heard an awkward silence on the other end of the line. „The nurse who picked up the phone asked for some patience and left for like 5 minutes. I sat next to the phone, our kid next to me. She came back and she said fully confused that she is very sorry but the gentleman had passed in the morning,” Erzsébet said and continued in tears: the reason why the hospital had not called her earlier was that they had thought the deceased „had no relatives.”
IV. Unworthy farewell – In two black bags, hermetically sealed
On Easter Sunday, 30-year-old Janka Tillai was waiting in front of the emergency room of Szent György Hospital. She came for the hospital documentation of his father who had passed away 4 days earlier. She could look down to a lower floor of the building from the bridge that connected two sections of the hospital, where she was waiting with many around her. Downstairs, there was a long queue of people, some dressed fully in black, others with bags. “I needed a couple of minutes to realize that this must be the pathology. It was like you were waiting for ice cream, terrible. I would have not believed it, if I had not seen it with my own eyes. That the death has become so natural,” Janka said.
Janka’s father came from a very poor family. According to his daughter, that is the reason why he worked a lot: he had a desire of prove himself and never wanted his family to live in that kind of poverty that he had experienced in his childhood. He had a full-time job at the garbage-company of Érd, and he also was a farmer. Last year, he bought a new tractor that he was very proud of. The family prepared for a huge surprise for his 60th birthday this December: „He liked Rúzsa Magdi’s music very much, he listened it really loudly in the garbage truck and in the tractor. We planned to invite her to sing 5 songs, we already consulted with her manager,” Janka said.
Her father was taken to hospital in March with severe lower back pain and breathing difficulties. He passed away in early April. After his death, the bureaucratic procedures and the organization of the funeral went smoothly according to Janka, there was only „a little bit of a mess-up with the documents, as my father has such a common Hungarian name, János Kovács.”
The reason for the mess-up was that in Martonvásár, where Janka’s father lived, there was another János Kovács, who also died a bit later. The hospital gave out the documents of Janka’s father with the personal details of the other János Kovács. „It came to my mind whether the personal details are correct in the pathology, on the foot tag. But they assured me that those were correct – I think that’s my father that we have in the urn” – Janka said.
According the relatives who talked to Direkt36, the pandemic made the post-mortem administration and the organization of the funeral more burdensome, both emotionally and financially. The waiting in the pathology and in the undertaker’s office made the grief even harder for many, and others had the feeling that, because of the danger of infection, they were not able to have a worthy farewell from the loved ones.
This was the case of Nóra, who went to the pathology with her mother and two daughters after her father’s death. They took the man’s suit as well. „Everybody, my mom, me and my daughters wrote letters to grandpa, and we put it in the pocket of the suit for him, so that he could take the letters with him. As it turned out, this was all useless, because we were told at the pathology that he can’t be dressed and can’t even be seen. He is in two black bags, hermetically sealed. I asked whether he was naked in the bag. And they said yes.”
Family members also had to go to the hospital to collect the personal belongings of the deceased. This was also not easy because of the pandemic. One family member, for example, who, according to the regulations at the time, should have been in quarantine, but nobody ordered her to do so. Instead, she took home her mother’s personal belongings from the isolation ward simply in public transport. Another family member was instructed not to touch the personal belongings of the deceased for two weeks. According to him, however, this was impossible, as the family has to inform lots of different authorities about the death of their loved one – and for that, they need the papers of the deceased.
„Papers and papers everywhere, and no flexibility. They ask a document in the first place, and in the second place they complain because I did not copy the address-card of my mom. There was a stage where we were so tired of this with my sister that she said if yet another difficulty comes up, we should throw the ashes of mom in Lake Balaton,” said Judit Donászy, who lost her mother last December.
Judit and her family finally held the ceremony at the Cemetery of Fiumei Street in Budapest, which cost almost 1 million forints (2800 euros). Judit and other relatives highlighted that they had to pay different extra costs because the deceased died of Covid. There were family members who had to pay 10000 forints (30 euros) as „infection fee” and 6000 forints (20 euros) for a „pandemic sheet”, while other undertakers asked thousands of forints for protecting equipment for the mortuary workers, although they only wore surgical mask as protection.
Éva Gyuricza did not only have to pay 4000 forints (11 euros) for the extra Covid bag, but also 16000 forints (45 euros) to the hospital as storage- and cooling-fee, just because she was not able to organize the funeral of her mother immediately. „And do you know what the worst part is?” Éva asked. „Don’t get me wrong, it is not about the money. It is when I ask an undertaker company to manage the cremation of my mom, and I see the checkered booklet with the names of the dead people. My mom’s number was 12904.”
For a lot of family members, the hardest was that their loved ones were treated as data. Some of them did not even dare to check the website of the government where Covid victims are listed without names but with information about their sex, age and illnesses.
„What if next to all the data, next to every single number that means a person, there would also be a photo? What if next to the photo there would also be some personal information?” Magdolna’s daughter Boglárka posted on Facebook next to a photo of the two of them, 2 days after her family had gone to the hospital to say goodbye to Magdolna. At that time, Magdolna was still on a ventilator, in a severe state.
„My mom hardly ever went on a sick leave, she was not sickly type at all. She was a kindergarten teacher who loved children very much. She already has two grandchildren, she became a grandmother at a young age. What else could I tell about her? She doesn’t like to be alone, quality-time is her love-language. She loves to go to second-hand shops, she loves romantic movies. She and my dad usually asked me what to watch in the cinema. She loves her children. The three of us. She loves her husband very much. She would love to travel back to Balatonföldvár where we spent many holidays when I was a child. I love you so much, my dear mother, and we are waiting for you to come home”– Boglárka wrote.
Two days later, as the last sentence of her post, she just added the time of her mother’s death.