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; he hoped to join the RAF.
But as the coronavirus tore through the UK, Agyeiwaa Agyapong became ill. On 7 April she was admitted to Luton and Dunstable university hospital, where she had been working as a nurse until signed off with shortness of breath. She tested positive for coronavirus and was taken to theatre for an emergency caesarean. Her baby, five weeks early, was born alive. But after five days in intensive care, the 28-year-old died. Boateng was alone, with a premature daughter and two-year-old son to look after.
“I was completely lost,” he says, speaking from his home in Luton, his 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 Boateng, that journey has meant becoming the sole carer for two young children – and, recently, a campaigner for expectant couples. Last week he wrote to Boris Johnson, urging the prime minister 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,” Boateng 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 Agyeiwaa Agyapong was signed off sick with pregnancy-related issues on 12 March and was not treating coronavirus patients beforehand. 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 this March.
It has been more than seven months since her death, but some days Boateng 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 Agyeiwaa Agyapong had lived in the UK since she was 16, Boateng 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.
“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. Their son, AJ, now three, still asks where Mummy has gone. Like her, his heart is full of kindness, says Boateng. “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 Boateng in the middle of the night to check whether 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,” says Boateng. “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 during which the UK reached the grim milestone of 50,000 coronavirus deaths, Boateng 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,. 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, he is trying to look to the future. He wants to study again, move into human rights law. He wants to make his children, and his late wife, proud. “I have to make sure I don’t disappoint them,” Boateng says. “I have to come out stronger. And, you know, show the world that we’ve lost, but we’ve not lost hope.”