Chronically ill man's obituary calls on people to mask up, get COVID shots

Perry Handleman, seen here in a photo supplied by his sister, lived alone and required oxygen because he had chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), a respiratory illness. (courtesy Carol Handleman - image credit)
Perry Handleman, seen here in a photo supplied by his sister, lived alone and required oxygen because he had chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), a respiratory illness. (courtesy Carol Handleman - image credit)

The obituary for Perry Handleman, a chronically ill man who recently died in hospital after being diagnosed with COVID-19, ran three short paragraphs, with no photo.

But its last line — calling on people to mask up and keep their vaccinations up to date — packs a punch as hospitals across Ontario juggle a triple whammy of COVID-19, influenza and respiratory syncytial virus (RSV), says one of the province's top doctors.

"It's really a call to action," said Dr. Robert Cushman, the acting medical officer of health for the Renfrew County and District Health Unit, about Handleman's weekend notice in the Ottawa Citizen.

"I mean, it certainly did much more than I can do — and that's my job."

The obituary ran one day before Premier Doug Ford urged the province's residents to wear masks without mandating them — a message Chief Medical Officer of Health Dr. Kieran Moore is expected to echo during his own remarks Monday at 9 a.m.

Handleman's younger sister, Carol, wrote the obituary after giving it a couple days' thought.

"Technology" got in the way of including an image of her 66-year-old brother — a retired painter who stopped working professionally when he was diagnosed with a respiratory illness over a decade ago, she said.

But not having a photo actually added to the obituary's power, according to Cushman.

"It was so short and so to the point," he said.

'Thought some good would come out of it'

Carol Handleman told CBC the write-up wasn't meant as a political statement; she just wanted to alert people to her brother's death and "thought some good would come out of it."

According to the obituary, Perry Handleman died when his condition worsened after getting COVID-19.

"His lungs were already too damaged and he couldn't fight it," Carol said.

Its final sentence said Handleman had asked his friends and family to "keep their vaccines up to date and wear masks in indoor spaces to stay safe."

Guy Quenneville/CBC
Guy Quenneville/CBC

Survived by 102-year-old mother

Carol said her brother lived alone in a mobile home and required oxygen. He was in and out of the hospital many times because of his underlying illness, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD).

That's in line with people who develop COPD, which is most often caused by smoking, said Cushman.

"These are the people that are most vulnerable to COVID," he said. "This disease picks off the weak."

The Handlemans took the risk of COVID-19 very seriously, said Carol, whose 102-year-old mother is staying with her in Perth, Ont.

"Our whole MO of operation was to be as cautious as we could: wearing our masks, not going out, not all the vanities that we used to do," she said.

"All the things we [previously] did, we stopped doing them."

courtesy Carol Handleman
courtesy Carol Handleman

Perry Handleman was vaccinated against COVID-19 at least four times, stayed home, had groceries brought to his trailer and was visited by masked personal support workers, she added.

"There are so many people that are not masking [in public]. And I just want to scream, 'Don't you guys have a brother that you know or something?' I don't understand it."

'He wanted me to stay safe'

Despite his COPD, Handleman kept smoking cigarettes.

"He did everything else he could, but he could not quit smoking," said Carol, adding he was diagnosed with COVID-19 at the hospital on or around Oct. 10 but had "no idea" how he contracted it.

He never left in-hospital care after that point and died on Oct. 31.

"Because he got COVID, certainly he wanted me to stay safe and he wanted his friends and his family to keep up with their vaccinations and also to wear masks," she said.

The family has been asked if a gathering will be held for Handleman, and Carol said maybe one will take place next summer — but not right now.

"There's too many viruses around."