As the coronavirus continues to dominate headlines and our daily lives, it’s easy to lose track of all the people we’ve lost so far. The virus has taken over 1.32 million lives all over the world, including Suzanne ‘Bomma Jeanne’ Hoylaerts, from Belgium. She made headlines back in March when she first contracted COVID-19. She was soon admitted to a local hospital where her illness only got worse.
Instead of going on a ventilator, she refused, reportedly telling doctors, “I don’t want to use artificial respiration. Save it for younger patients. I already had a good life.”
Her sacrifice ultimately led to her death, but it may have helped save another life in return. It’s a powerful message that still stays with us today.
Losing a Mother
Suzanne Hoylaerts first arrived at the hospital after her daughter Judith noticed her sudden lack of appetite and shortness of breath. “She had pneumonia and was hospitalized last year,” her daughter told a local news outlet.
With her oxygen saturation dangerously low, doctors tested her for COVID-19 and the results came back positive. That meant she had to go into isolation, and she could no longer visit with her daughter, which led to a tearful goodbye.
Judith told local media her mother’s last words to her were: “You can’t cry. You did everything you could. I had a good life.”
In isolation, the doctors recommended putting her on a ventilator, but Hoylaerts refused, telling them to save the equipment for younger patients.
Her daughter says her mom took the lockdown seriously and she’s not sure how she contracted the disease. The entire ordeal took the family by surprise. With strict lockdown measures in place, they also had to come to terms with the fact that they wouldn’t get to say goodbye.
“How and where our mother suffered is a mystery to us,” says daughter Judith. “When I took her to the hospital on Friday, we thought she had mild pneumonia, she passed away on Saturday. I haven’t been able to say goodbye and I can’t even go to the funeral.”
The country of Belgium currently has over 536,000 confirmed cases of the virus with just over 14,000 deaths. It was able to keep the virus at bay for many months until the country experienced a deadly outbreak in late September, becoming the country with Europe’s “worst COVID-19 infection rate.” Some facilities have even started airlifting patients to neighboring Germany to reduce demand on the ground.
The pandemic nearly broke the country’s healthcare system with doctors and providers being asked to stay on the job even if they have tested positive for the virus. “A major issue is the risk of the collapse of the hospital system of our country,” said Rudi Vervoort, the head of the country’s capital region.
A Powerful Sacrifice
Just as Hoylaerts was being admitted to the hospital with COVID-19, the country was in the middle of a dangerous ventilator shortage. One of the area’s largest facilities, Saint-Pierre Hospital, started asking the public for donations. “Our hospital is making preparations to go through a long crisis. We need to obtain additional medical equipment, including around a dozen ventilators,” the facility wrote in a statement.
Spokesperson Nathalie Schaar said at the time, “Unfortunately, we are bracing for a peak in [hospitalizations]. Right now, we have 35 beds in an intensive care unit all equipped with a ventilator, and I suspect we are not the only ones who need more.”
The hospital estimated purchasing additional ventilators would have cost around €500,000 to €600,000, which comes out to just over $71,000.
Saint-Pierre Hospital was seen as one of the best equipped facilities in the country, often considered the country’s first line of defense against infectious disease, but the coronavirus pandemic pushed the country to its breaking point.
At a time when there weren’t enough ventilators to go around, Hoylaerts decided to sacrifice her own life so others could be spared by having access to this life-saving equipment. It’s not clear if she would have made it if she had decided to use a ventilator. Studies suggest that around 35.7% of COVID-19 patients who require ventilators ultimately succumb to the disease.
We are so touched and heartbroken by Suzanne Hoylaerts’ story and her family’s experience. No one should have to turn away life-saving care when they go into the hospital, but clearly she was ready to sacrifice her own chance of recovery in order to save another’s.