Before the pandemic struck, Ernest Boateng and his wife, Mary Agyeiwaa Agyapong, were planning for the future. She was expecting their second child and – after her maternity leave – wanted to become a specialist diabetes nurse; Ernest hoped to join the RAF.
But as the virus tore through the UK, Mary became ill. On 7 April she was admitted to Luton and Dunstable university hospital, where she worked as a nurse, with shortness of breath. She tested positive for coronavirus and was taken to theatre for an emergency caesarean section. Her baby, five weeks early, was born alive. But after five days fighting Covid and pneumonia in intensive care, Mary died, aged just 28. Ernest was suddenly alone, with a premature newborn, and his two-year-old son to look after.
“I was completely lost,” he says, speaking from his home in Luton, his baby daughter Mary gurgling in his arms. “I had this lovely, cute baby girl, but her mum was not around, she was gone. I had to try and pick up from where we left off and just get on with the journey.”
For Ernest, that journey has meant becoming the sole carer for two very small children – and, recently, a campaigner for expectant couples. Last week he wrote to the prime minister, urging him to make it a legal requirement for employers to allow all pregnant women who pass 20 weeks gestation to work from home or be suspended on full pay.
“Being a campaigner is not something I ever saw myself doing,” he says. “But now it’s become part of my story, part of my life. Pregnant women need to be protected – I don’t want any family to have to go through the kind of trauma me and my kids are going through.”
Bedfordshire hospitals NHS foundation trust said Mary was signed off sick with pregnancy-related issues on 12 March three and a half weeks before she died and was not treating coronavirus patients. She was “a fabulous nurse, and a great example of what we stand for”, said trust’s chief executive, David Carter. A full inquest into her death is due to start in March.
It’s been eight months since her death, but some days Ernest still struggles to believe she has gone. “Sometimes it comes as a shock to me,” he says. “When I’m just by myself, sometimes I just ask myself – is she really dead? Is she really gone? Is that how this world is? Something I’ve not been able to fully deal with the fact that she’s gone from this life and that’s it.”
Without thinking, without questioning, and through sheer necessity he has thrown himself into looking after their children. “I don’t know how I do it, but I just do it,” he says. “I don’t have a plan, I don’t have any book that I’m referring to. The only thing that keeps me going is that I love my kids. I am all they have got now. And I have to give them my best, I can’t fail them. And I can’t fail Mary.”
The couple met in 2016, when she was already a nurse and he was studying at Oxford Brookes University. They were both from Ghana originally, but while Mary had lived in the UK since she was 16, Ernest was still struggling to adapt after 12 months. She helped him understand the British way of life, he explains and value the culture of both countries. “With me and Mary it was like it just had to happen,” he says simply.
“Mary was very warm. Regardless of age, gender, whatever, she would accept everybody,” he says. It was part of what made her such an incredible nurse: “Nursing was Mary’s second nature. And caring for people was what she loved to do.”
In their home, pictures of Mary and the family together line the walls. His son AJ, now three, still asks where mummy has gone. Like her, his heart is full of kindness, says Ernest. “He will come to me and say: ‘Daddy are you OK? Are you sure Daddy? Can I give you a hug?’ Sometimes he will wake Ernest in the middle of the night to check if he is crying, after hearing his father weep in the days and weeks after his mother’s death. “After his mum passed the only thing I could do was just give him a lot of hugs. So now he has also understood that emotions when someone is sad, or is in the worst moment, the only thing you can do is give them a hug.”
In a week where the UK reached the grim milestone of 50,000 deaths, Ernest says he knows he is not walking alone along this hard, sometimes dark path. “Our individual stories might be different but we’ve all lost a loved one,” he says. “Some were very close, some may have been distantly related, but we have all lost someone dear to us. We all wish they were still here.”
Out of the maelstrom of grief, Ernest is trying to look to the future. He wants to study again, move into human rights law. He wants to make his children, and Mary, proud. “I have to make sure I don’t disappoint them,” he says. “I have to come out stronger. And, you know, show the world that we’ve lost, but we’ve not lost hope.”