Rarely a day goes by without two-year-old AJ Boateng asking for his mother. His father, Ernest, holds him tight and says they’ll see her later. He can’t bring himself to tell his little boy that his mother is dead.
Mary Agyapong, 28, was heavily pregnant and working as a nurse at Luton and Dunstable Hospital in Bedfordshire when she fell ill at the height of the coronavirus pandemic. She tested positive for Covid-19 and died on Easter Sunday, five days after doctors delivered her baby girl, who is also called Mary, by C-section a month prematurely.
‘Mary was such a loving mother,’ says Ernest. ‘We had this tradition when either of us was at work that we’d video call to see how the others were doing.
Ernest Boateng, pictured with baby Mary and two-year-old AJ at their home in Luton is grieving the loss of his wife Mary, a nurse, who died of Covid-19 five days after giving birth
Mary Agyapong, 28, was heavily pregnant and working as a nurse at Luton and Dunstable Hospital in Bedfordshire when she fell ill at the height of the coronavirus pandemic. She tested positive for Covid-19 and died on Easter Sunday, five days after doctors delivered her baby girl, who is also called Mary, by C-section a month prematurely
‘Mary always called on her break. AJ used to chatter away non-stop. You didn’t really know what he was saying, but Mary would pretend she understood every word and go: “Oh wow, really?” Now, when he sees my phone, he gives it to me and says: “Daddy, I want Mummy.” I think he believes Mummy’s at work. He doesn’t understand.
‘I just give him a strong hug and say: “We’ll see Mummy later.” ’
Much like his little boy, Ernest doesn’t seem to fully comprehend that the woman he loved from the moment he set eyes on her four years ago is no longer here.
He speaks, in his first in-depth interview, with his 12-week-old baby girl in his arms and a terrible sadness in his eyes.
‘Mary never held her baby,’ says Ernest. ‘She was born at three minutes to midnight on April 7. I couldn’t be at the birth in case I was Covid-positive and infected the baby, so I sat in the car outside the hospital and prayed.
‘When Mary called to say she was safe and the baby was safe, I was so happy I thanked God. They told me Mary would be fine. They said she was young and would fight the virus.
‘After she died, I stood by her bedside in full personal protective equipment [PPE] touching her hair, crying and trying to wake her — shaking her, lifting her hand.
‘I just wanted to see a sign she was still alive. But she wasn’t. I just cried and cried. My whole outfit was soaked with tears. I kept asking: “Why? Why?” ’
Mr Boateng, right, said his wife was unable to hold their newborn daughter as she was taken away immediately to reduce the risk of the infant contracting Covid-19
We are sitting in the garden at his Luton home, which is a stone’s throw from the hospital where Mary worked and died.
Ernest, a committed Christian, is still trying to make sense of the horror that has befallen him and his young family.
In yet another tragic twist, Mary’s father Stephen also died from Covid-19 five days before his daughter. Mary, who last saw him at a family celebration on January 31, was never told he had died.
‘Why?’ is a word that crops up time and again during our interview. Ernest hopes an inquiry into Mary’s death, which is expected to conclude in September, will provide answers.
He cannot understand why his wife, who suffered with anaemia throughout her pregnancy, was not signed off work as a precautionary measure when coronavirus patients were first admitted to the hospital.
Nor can he make sense of the fact that, shortly before she fell ill on March 13, testing was restricted to those who were admitted to hospital with Covid-19 symptoms.
Mary didn’t have a high temperature or a dry cough so wasn’t tested until she was admitted to A&E struggling to breathe on April 5.
‘Why didn’t they test her when she went off sick on March 13 and they knew there were Covid patients in the hospital?’ he asks. (Mary was off work sick with a chesty, not dry, cough for three weeks before she was eventually tested in A&E.)
Mr Boateng, pictured, said his wife was scared of contracting Covid-19, even though in theory, she would have been at lower risk as she worked on a diabetes ward
Although the first Covid-19 case was confirmed at Luton and Dunstable Hospital on March 19, the first suspected case came on March 11, according to the hospital’s director of communications.
Ernest would also like to know what PPE was available to Mary and her colleagues. The lack of adequate PPE for NHS staff in hospitals throughout the UK became a constant concern as the crisis deepened, and prompted the Mail to launch its charity, Mail Force, on April 29, to supply vital gear to those in need.
Although Mary worked on a diabetic ward, Ernest says she was terrified of picking up the virus. She would strip off her uniform in the porch when she arrived home from work and immediately bundle it into the washing machine, then shower before greeting her family.
Mary’s death on Easter Sunday shocked the nation. So much so that emergency service workers lined the streets outside the hospital where she had worked for five years to pay tribute to this gentle, dedicated nurse.
That Thursday, when we clapped for our selfless NHS heroes, there was a minute’s silence for Mary. Within a few days, more than £100,000 was raised for her family.
Ernest, 30, would give that much again to have his life as it used to be, with the woman he met when he was studying accountancy at Oxford Brookes University, and married in 2017. Before the coronavirus turned the world on its head, he had been accepted into the RAF as a personal support officer.
Mary, who had lived in Britain since she was 16, was also part-way towards realising her dream of becoming a diabetes specialist, after qualifying as a ward sister and applying to study for her masters degree at the University of Hertfordshire.
Mr Boateng, pictured on the day he got married to Mary, right, said his wife was working longer hours despite being heavily pregnant as the hospital were suffering staff shortages
‘I was going to serve in the RAF for 12 years while Mary became a specialist in diabetes,’ says Ernest. ‘I had a vision of returning to Ghana [he came to the UK at the age of 25 to study] and her setting up a private clinic for diabetics while I worked in politics. Her father had a history of diabetes, so she wanted to do it for him — to make him proud.’
Today, Mary and her father Stephen are buried side-by-side in a cemetery in Northampton.
Mary was 31 weeks pregnant, but felt compelled to work long hours owing to staffing shortages when she woke feeling ‘very tired’ on March 13. She struggled into work, but came home early feeling wretched.
‘Sometimes Mary was working four days continuously,’ says Ernest. ‘I felt really bad for her. I wanted to go in and speak to her manager because Mary wouldn’t speak out for herself. Now I wish I had.’
Three days after falling ill, Mary went to see her GP.
‘She didn’t have a dry cough, so we thought she was tired because of the pregnancy and the anaemia. The GP signed her off work until she was due to take a week’s annual leave on March 26, and told her to drink more water.
‘But every day that went by she was getting worse. She barely had the energy to come down to the living room. It got to the stage where I had to help Mary bathe.
‘She was coughing heavily, but on the news it said you had to have a dry cough. Mary’s wasn’t dry so we didn’t think she had Covid-19.’
Her condition deteriorated alarmingly on April 5. ‘When I went to check on her after giving AJ his breakfast, she was just lying there,’ says Ernest. ‘She said: “I can’t breathe.” I called the ambulance straight away.
‘The paramedic checked her temperature and blood pressure, and was so convinced she didn’t have Covid, he took off his mask to chat to her.
‘He said because she was pregnant he’d have to take her to A&E for her to be assessed.’
Mary walked to the ambulance with her husband’s help. She was swabbed for Covid-19 and discharged from A&E within a few hours.
Ernest continues: ‘The following night she got much worse. She had wanted me to sleep in a separate room with AJ until we had the results of the swab, but I kept going in to check on her.
‘At about midnight, I opened the door and realised she was just lying there. She couldn’t breathe. I got scared and called the ambulance.’
Mary was given intravenous antibiotics and a chest X-ray. Shockingly, she was put in a side room in the maternity ward, close to other pregnant women and their babies, while doctors awaited the results of the earlier Covid-19 swab. ‘That afternoon, she called to say the result was positive and that they wanted to do a C-section,’ says Ernest. ‘I was in a state. What if she’d passed it on to AJ?’
Ernest was allowed to visit his wife in her side room, where he was given PPE to wear, to discuss the consultant’s advice.
‘Mary didn’t want to have the C-section because she was worried about the baby. It wasn’t due until May 7. She believed her body could fight Covid — that she would get better, come home and have the baby in a month. But she was struggling for breath.’
Eventually, she agreed to have the C-section. At 11pm, the anaesthetist arrived and Mary’s baby girl was delivered safely at 11.57pm.
She was immediately removed from her mother and taken to the special care baby unit. Mary was unable to do so much as stroke her baby’s cheek for fear of transmitting the virus.
‘She called me shortly after 1am to say she and baby were doing well and sent me pictures. I was so happy Mary and baby were safe.
‘Later that morning I was allowed in to see her in a side ward.’
That was the last time Ernest saw his wife.
He says: ‘I had to go home and self-isolate with AJ. I remember planning how to decorate the house for Mary and baby for the homecoming.
‘We spoke a few times that day and Mary was well enough to walk around her room. But at 3pm when I called she wasn’t picking up. She didn’t pick up for several hours.
‘When I called the maternity suite to find out what was happening, a nurse said: “Mary’s condition has deteriorated. The consultant is with her. We are getting her ready to go to intensive care where we’re going to sedate her so her body can rest and fight the virus.”
‘I asked if she was conscious. They said “yes”. I asked to speak to her. They said to give them an hour and they’d call back. They didn’t. When I called them again they said they didn’t know where she’d been taken so they had to go to look for her, and she’d already been sedated.’
Ernest strokes baby Mary’s face as he composes himself. His wife would remain in intensive care for four days.
‘A nurse who was very close to Mary told me on the Saturday: “Ernest, I wouldn’t worry too much about Mary because the consultant is very positive.” She said: “Mary has a baby she wants to take care of, so she isn’t going to give up.” ’
But at 5am on Easter Sunday, his phone rang. It was the consultant.
‘She said Mary’s kidneys had failed and it was unlikely they could save her. I jumped out of bed, crying, calling friends, family, anyone who could help. I wanted to change the news, change the situation. I wanted it to be a dream.
At 9am he received a second call from the hospital. They were losing Mary. He should come immediately.
‘When I got to the hospital I was running up and down the corridor screaming for the directions to her ward. A consultant stopped me. He said: “I’m sorry.” ’ It was too late.
After seeing Mary’s body, a devastated Ernest returned home.
‘I just held AJ,’ he says. ‘Because I was crying, he was crying, but he didn’t know why. I kept saying: “It’s going to get better. We’re going to be fine.”
‘Two days later, AJ and I both tested positive for Covid. I wasn’t allowed to see little Mary until I was clear. That was April 25 — my 30th birthday.’
Commenting on Mary’s death, David Carter, chief executive at Bedfordshire Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust, said: ‘We were extremely saddened to lose Mary. She was a highly valued and loved member of our team, a fantastic nurse and a great example of what we stand for in this Trust.
‘We have carried out a full internal review into the circumstances surrounding her death and we are confident that she received the best possible care and support from the Trust.
‘We have sent our deepest condolences to Mr Boateng, and are currently working through a number of issues he has raised.’
This is the first time Ernest has spoken in detail about the past three months. He is struggling to keep it together, but is determined to do so for Mary’s sake.
‘When I held my daughter I couldn’t be jubilant and I couldn’t cry. I spoke to my heart and said: “Help me to love my child.”
‘Now, I feel blessed to have AJ and little Mary, but there is a space. We are not complete as a family. But I will stay strong for my kids.
‘With Mary gone, I’m the only person they have. You think: “If only they had signed her off work. If only I’d gone in to the hospital and spoken up for Mary. If only they had tested her when she first fell ill — we could have sought help sooner. If only . . .” ’
AJ charges into the garden — and within earshot — so Ernest doesn’t finish the sentence. There is no need.