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Hearing my husband die over the phone was harrowing and inhumane, says distraught Lurgan mother-of-two

Heather McIwaine and husband, Alan

A heartbroken woman who lost her husband to Covid-19 has told how she heard him take his dying breaths over a mobile phone as she sat, alone, in a hospital car park.

Heather McIlwaine (52) described the experience as “inhumane” and said she has struggled to come to terms with the harrowing death and the “horrible way” it happened.

The Lurgan mother-of-two also said she hoped the UK Covid-19 public inquiry, now sitting in Belfast, will help prevent anyone else from suffering like she did.

“I took Alan to hospital on January 19, 2021, after he developed breathing difficulties; 11 days later he was dead,” Heather said.

“He had a head cold that just wouldn’t go away. I still don’t know why he deteriorated so quickly, but I do know that I will never get the answer.

“He was only 51. He should still be here now.”

Alan McIlwaine, a welder, was diagnosed with Covid-19 and died in Craigavon Area Hospital at 10.15am on January 30, 2021.

Heather and Alan had been together for 32 years, 24 of them happily married. Their children, Bailey and Robyn, were aged 20 and 16 respectively when they lost their father.

They were permitted to have only 25 people at his funeral and are furious that the pandemic rules seemingly “only applied to ordinary people”.

The Co Armagh woman said she hoped the Northern Ireland module of the public inquiry would shed some light on the decisions made by those in power.

But she added that she was “extremely anxious” about potential revelations, given what she has already learned from previous modules.

“I am all for disclosure and truth if it stops another family from going through what we’ve been through,” she said.

“We’ll never get over losing Alan. He didn’t deserve to die like that.

“Until the inquiry started in London, I’d always believed Alan was buried in hospital pyjamas. Then it emerged that people were double-bagged and put into coffins. That was hard to hear.”

She added: “To be honest, I sometimes wonder if it was really my husband that we buried in that coffin.”

Heather, who, like Alan, had tested positive for the virus, visited him in hospital a week after he was admitted.

“I was given PPE to wear and taken to see him,” she said.

“I hugged him and kissed him and we were talking away. He was just normal Alan.

“I videoed him giving a message to the kids, telling them to be good for me and reminding them that he loved them both.”

She added: “As I was leaving an hour later, he told me he hoped to be home real soon.”

Four days later, an early morning phone call brought the McIlwaines’ world crashing down.

“I rushed to the hospital, hoping to see Alan one last time,” Heather recalled.

“I was due to be out of Covid isolation the next day but wasn’t allowed into the hospital.

“I had to sit in the car, waiting, until the nurse called. She put the phone to Alan’s ear.

“Hospital machines were beeping. I was begging him not to die; not to leave us.

“There was silence. Then the nurse was on the phone, saying she was sorry that Alan had passed away. It was horrendous.”

Leaving her husband at the doors of A&E is a memory that will haunt Heather forever.

“He hated hospitals; he was really nervous,” she said.

“When he got out of the car he said, ‘I might never see you again’.

“Driving home to Lurgan after that was awful. I was crying so much, the car was all over the road on the way home.”

She added: “We lived in hope; we had no idea that day was the beginning of the end.”

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