‘We didn’t even know he had COVID,’ says Miray Wehbe, whose father-in-law Mikal Wehbe, 79, died at St Vincent’s Hospital in late 2021. Mikel is one of the thousands of Victorians who sadly died of the virus during the last few years. And while the community slowly continues to emerge from the pandemic, there remain a number of stories just like Mikal’s that are only being shared now.

‘He was a very generous and kind man,’ Miray says of her father-in-law. ‘He came to Australia [from Lebanon] in 1969 with his wife, who was pregnant at the time.’ The couple had lost two children back home, where life was tough and they had no work. ‘They had already lived a hard life,’ Miray shares.

‘They said they would go to Australia for five years—make some money and go home. In the end they were here for almost 60 years!’

Mikal had been a sickly man all his life, Miray says, but the family could hardly believe it when the doctors confirmed COVID as the cause of death.

‘My father-in-law was sick for almost 20 years—he had high blood pressure, diabetes, high cholesterol and was in a wheelchair,’ she says. But in mid- to late-2021, Mikal began complaining of a persistent pressure sore on the heel of his foot, and the family took him to St Vincent’s hospital. ‘They offered to operate but he was scared. He preferred the nurse to come each day and check him at home,’ Miray says.

By October 2021, the doctors told the Wehbe family that his wound was not likely to heal and recommended amputation. If he was to go this route, it was likely that he would not return home and need to remain in the hospital for continued care.

‘It was very hard. Mikal didn’t want this, so we took him home,’ says Miray. The family understood that at that point Mikal was likely to get septicaemia and began palliative care. ‘He wanted to be at home with his family instead of in hospital. The doctors said to us, “Look, the blood could get infected, which might take a week or two, or a month—we don’t know.”’

During his final days, many of Mikal’s friends and family visited his home in Thornbury. ‘Everyday all the family would visit him; it was hard but we tried our best.’ After being at home for a week, Mikal suffered a seizure and had to return to St Vincent’s.

‘My husband took him to the hospital, and he went into a coma,’ she says. ‘They told us, “Your dad’s not going to make it, but we don’t know how long he’ll last.” By Sunday, he passed away.’

At this point, the family understood the cause of death to be septicaemia. But after Mikal’s death, the doctor spoke with Miray’s husband and confirmed that the cause of death was COVID-19. ‘My husband was shocked. He didn’t want to believe it at first. He said, “No, no, he died of septicaemia.”

‘He died on Sunday 21 November. On Monday afternoon, we were planning the funeral [to take place on Wednesday]. But the hospital called my husband and said, “Make sure everyone gets tested. It’s 100-per-cent confirmed that your dad had COVID-19.”’

‘So on Monday afternoon we all got tested, and on Tuesday we received a message that many of us were positive. We couldn’t believe it. We didn’t want to believe it. None of us had symptoms at all.’

That same afternoon, Miray received a phone call from one of their family friends who said that she wouldn’t be able to attend Mikal’s funeral as she and her husband had contracted COVID-19. Only a few days before, the couple had visited Mikal at his home, and Miray believes she is likely to have been the source of the virus.

‘We’re Lebanese. When someone is sick or dies, everyone comes to the house,’ Miray explains. ‘And at that point, remember, visitors were still allowed. Of course, she didn’t know she had COVID. My father-in-law was careful; he had his mask on all day, but he must have gotten it from this family friend and then we got it from him.’

Mikal Wehbe with his grandchildren (Photo supplied)

COVID sent an already grieving family into disarray. Not only did Mikal’s funeral need to be postponed by two weeks, but his elderly wife also later contracted the virus herself.

‘Back then you had to do 14 days in isolation. My mother-in-law was stressing about postponing the funeral, but of course she was grieving as well. And then she tested positive for COVID, and at that point she’d only had one dose of the vaccine,’ Miray recalls. ‘She got very sick and went to the hospital three times, and at one stage she was very close to dying. It was very hard for us.’

Miray herself contracted the virus, along with two of her five children. ‘It was difficult. And it was so scary when my mother-in-law went to the hospital. Thank God she was OK; we were praying so hard,’ Miray says.

‘Another issue we had was that my daughter’s wedding was coming up—the first grandchild—but because my father-in-law was very sick, we moved it to December 2021 so he could attend. But he didn’t make it.’

‘My father-in-law was always wearing the mask and doing everything possible to not get it [COVID], but in his last days, he was seeing all these family and friends and he got it from them. They were his very good friends—friends he’d had for 40 years or more—and they didn’t know they had COVID when they visited my father-in-law,’ Miray explains.

‘But look, my father-in-law wasn’t well. We knew he was eventually going to die, but we just didn’t think it would be COVID. We thought it would be the septicaemia.’

Thankfully, after two weeks in isolation, the family was able to celebrate Mikal’s life at a funeral Mass at Our Lady of Lebanon Church in Thornbury. ‘Mikal went into hospital on 19 November and he died on 21 November. Then the funeral was on 6 December. We were praying to God that no one else tested positive so we could all go! We had the funeral Mass; but sadly many friends couldn’t make it.’

The Wehbe family (Photo supplied)

Miray says that despite the difficulties of the past year, she remains grateful to family and friends and her local parish for their continued support.

‘Many of our friends, and parish priest—they didn’t leave us. They gave us so much support,’ she says. While the family was isolating, friends and local parishioners would cook and take food and shopping to their house. ‘No one left us. We are very blessed to have very good friends. And the priests would call every day to see if we needed anything.’

‘My mother-in-law is OK now too. She’s living by herself at home, but we always go stay with her and keep her company or go shopping. We all live in the same street, which is good.’

The family remains grateful to the staff of St Vincent’s and the hospital chaplain, Fr Zaher Mhanna, who spent time with Mikal in his final days.

‘When my father-in-law first went into hospital, we couldn’t visit him. Fr Zaher helped us and saw him. My father-in-law, you see, can’t be by himself all the time otherwise he will panic.

‘So my husband asked the nurse if they could bring my dad downstairs once a day after lunch and then we would stay with him for three hours before they took him up.

‘But we wanted someone to keep him company, and we wanted him to receive the Eucharist every day. So I called Fr Zaher and he remembered me. I told him our story and asked him to say hi to him and pray with him. Fr Zaher did that every day. We’d see him in the lobby and he’d come with us and pray with us.’

Miray is keenly aware that many families have suffered similar losses in the last couple of years, but remains grateful for their time with Mikal. ‘Even though he couldn’t walk, he had his iPad with him all the time and he loved cooking. He would watch cooking videos on YouTube and then call me and say, “Come over, let’s cook this!”’

‘He loved his family … After Mass, we used to go to his place and have a barbecue.’

‘I heard a lot of other stories of family members who died and they had no one around them,’ Miray reflects. ‘Maybe we got it easy, you know?’