When the coronavirus pandemic hit and nursing homes were making headlines as outbreaks infected residents, the family of Mickey Hart was justifiably concerned.
Hart, 88, had been living at North Woods Village for just over a year, and his health was fragile. He had dementia and was just bouncing back from some health complications. Knowing how hard the virus would hit him if it got into the facility, his family worried.
“It was our main concern when it broke out, and the nursing homes got hit really hard. That’s all we thought about. We just thought how if it’s going to get in it’ll be a miracle if he doesn’t get it because it just snowballs,” said Dale Hart, Hart’s son.
Despite Hart having dementia, he always recognized his wife, Maggie Hart, of nearly 70 years and his children, Vivian Rudolph and Dale. His family visited him regularly at the nursing home, and those visits meant a lot to them, said Dale, especially in March when Hart was recovering from an illness.
Dale said he noticed the changes in visitor restrictions happening quickly. Normally, he was able to stroll in, mingle, and freely spend time with his father. That changed to Dale having to be screened, wear a mask, sign in, and go straight to his father’s room.
But then visits stopped altogether.
His family was regulated to calling Hart, and Hart would call Maggie and his children. The family communicated this way for several weeks while they looked forward to the day they could visit in person again.
And then the call came that they’d dreaded since the start of the pandemic. There had been an outbreak at the facility in Hart’s wing.
On April 24, Hart was tested for COVID-19. His results came back positive the next day.
“The ironic thing is he was getting better. He’d been real sick for a few weeks, and then all of a sudden he was getting better and going back out and eating and joining the rest of the community there. So that was the ironic thing, that he was getting better when the virus came,” said Rudolph.
Knowing how ill he might get from the virus, Rudolph said the family was “devastated” that they couldn’t go see him. It was especially hard on Maggie.
The nursing home, Rudolph said, was great about calling and updating the family on how Hart was doing after he tested positive. They even got a call with an update at 1:30 a.m. one morning. Rudolph said she knew her father was in good hands, and he was well-liked in the facility.
Staff nicknamed him “Mickey Blues Eyes,” and he was known for his ornery and flirtatious personality. He’d often point to his cheek, indicating he wanted a kiss from staff, which Rudolph said always got them laughing.
After he tested positive, Hart was isolated to his room, but Rudolph said he wasn’t forgotten. The following Tuesday, Hart wasn’t doing well, and one of the nurses used FaceTime to call Maggie and Dale from Hart’s room.
“He recognized my voice, and he looked up,” said Dale. “He couldn’t focus on the camera. He was actually looking for me, and then I seen his eyes roll back and his head fall over to the right, and he didn’t respond anymore.”
For Dale, that was the last time he would see his father alive.
The next day, staff at the long-term care facility allowed Rudolph and Maggie, in full personal protective equipment, to visit Hart in person. They were led in through the back of the building, which went straight to Hart’s room, and Rudolph said staff had bleached everything in the room.
“He just responded very little to me, but he knew I was there,” said Maggie. “He kind of opened his eyes, a little smile, and that was about it right there at the end.”
The virus affected Hart’s oxygen and breathing, and it was apparent.
“When we were there, he was like choking and grabbing his throat like he couldn’t get enough air and things like that when we were watching him, which that was hard to watch,” said Rudolph. “It’s a horrible sound and a horrible thing to watch. I don’t wish that on any family.”
The next day, Thursday, April 30, Hart died.
Maggie said she was appreciative that she was given one last chance to see her husband.
“I was very grateful, and I just appreciate it so much what they did for us and for him,” she said.
For Dale, it was tough not to be able to spend his father’s last days with him.
“Abruptly after seeing your parent for over a year in a nursing home to not be able to see him in his last days is horrible,” he said. “My dad has dementia real bad ... but he never once didn’t notice us when we came in, so that’s even more devastating that we couldn’t be there in his last hours. He never once forgot us, which makes it harder.”
The family was able to have a small viewing for Hart, and they plan to have a memorial service this summer. Hart was a Delco retiree, a former UAW 292 Retirees president, the former chaplain for Ruzicka Airports, and had served as the head of Area 5 for a short time. Due to his involvement in many areas over his life, including politics, he had many friends, and Rudolph is looking forward to bringing them together to share stories of her father.
In the meantime, she was grateful for the calls she’s been getting from her father’s friends.
“The nice thing about this – it’s a hard thing to go through – but all the stories you hear about them afterward, all the nice things people say kind of helps get through the grieving process,” Rudolph said.
She also encouraged people to take the virus seriously.
“Many people don’t think this is a big deal,” she said. “You don’t realize it until somebody in your family or yourself gets it. You don’t have any idea, and it’s happening all the time.”
Hart was one of nine Howard County residents to die from COVID-19.