A local CNA didn’t know what she was getting into when she started working at a different assisted living facility in Kokomo in May.
On the third day on the job, Jennifer Bryant was told that a resident on the Alzheimer’s side of the facility had tested positive for COVID-19, and those residents would be quarantined to that unit. Since Bryant had worked on that side, she was informed that she now would be responsible for those residents.
“Honestly, I will never be the same again. I’m 43 years old, and I’ve been an aide for 20-plus years. I’ve seen a lot. I went through SARS. I went through AIDs. I worked around all of it, but I’ve never seen anything like this,” Bryant said.
Soon after the first resident tested positive, 13 others were confirmed to be COVID-positive, along with a number of staff members, Bryant said.
Bryant was nervous about the possibility of contracting the virus herself, but with many of her coworkers out, she knew the residents still needed to be cared for. She said she was in a position to help as she hadn’t tested positive, and all of her children were grown and out of the house. Because of that, she didn’t have to worry about bringing the virus home to her family should she get it.
“They had nobody to come in, and, you know, I feel like if it was my parent or my grandparent, I’d want them to be taken care of. I don’t have small children. I’m blessed all my children are grown,” Bryant said. “My daughter and my daughter-in-law were pregnant at the time, and I couldn’t be around them. I just stayed away just in case I could catch it.”
So she put in the hours. Her first two weeks on the job, she worked 174 hours, and she got to know the residents well.
Bryant said she was shocked by how quickly the virus sickened those she was charged to care for. People she had seen walking around just days before now were bedridden and extremely ill.
“The ones that got it, I think they passed away within a week. It didn’t take two weeks,” she said. “The guy that passed away first was when they realized that the patients had it because he was looking bad, and we were trying to get him up. He couldn’t even bear weight. He could stand in a walker, and then he couldn’t even stand up. It was horrible. It was just like they go quick because the elderly are already compromised with their health condition.”
The unit was sealed off from the rest of the facility with a temporary plastic zip-up door being installed in the hallway to prevent further spread of the virus, a sight that Bryant said looked like it was out of a movie. Staff had to wear full personal protective equipment (PPE), and, of course, no visitors were allowed.
Working with dementia patients, Bryant said, was especially heartbreaking as it was difficult to help them understand why everyone was wearing PPE and why their loved ones weren’t able to visit.
“Their families couldn’t come in. Of course you understand why, but it was so sad. We would – I’m sorry. I’m starting to tear up because, I mean, it really is an emotional thing. They think they forgot about them, their families, because they can’t come in,” she said. “With dementia patients, they remember young times. They remember their mom and dad and their kids being young. They say, ‘But I have a son, but I haven’t seen him. They don’t love me no more.’ You explain to them, and five minutes later they forget. And it’s all over again.”
Of the 14 residents who tested positive at the facility during that time, four of them died – and their last moments were even more heartbreaking, Bryant said.
“When they were dying, we had to turn their beds to the windows so their family members could watch them die through a window,” Bryant said. “Every time I talk about it, I cry because I’m a soft-hearted person. I’ve got a lot of love for people, and that was the saddest thing I’ve ever seen in my life or experienced.”
Despite how emotionally challenging it was, Bryant said she was grateful to be able to be there for the residents to hold their hands when no one else could. The family members, she said, appreciated it, too, and she received a number of gifts and plenty of “thank yous” from their families.
The other positive aspect was watching the other 10 residents recover from the virus. One of the survivors, Bryant said, was a woman whose husband of 50 years would visit outside of his wife’s window every day, holding their wedding photo.
“She knew it was him because she’d see the picture when they were young, and he’d come every day faithfully,” Bryant said. “The first time, I had to go to the bathroom because I lost it. I was like, ‘Oh, my gosh, he can’t even touch her because of her possibly dying.’ She lived, thank god.”
Eventually, Bryant was able to witness the other residents’ recoveries, as well and the staff’s. She was there when the facility was declared COVID-free, and she said it was a huge relief for everyone in the facility.
Due to wearing the PPE and working long hours, Bryant lost 23 pounds during the outbreak, she said.
Bryant continued working at the facility until mid-July, but eventually she left to work at a different facility. She said the memories made it too difficult to keep working there.
“It just really traumatized me. I put in so many hours there, and I watched so much happen. People, like when I started out, they were so healthy and walking around, and then, like I said, in not even a week they couldn’t even get out of bed. It was like nothing I’ve ever seen before,” she said.
While the facility Bryant is at now has yet to have any residents or staff test positive for the virus, she worries that it could happen as cases continue to climb.
Bryant applauded all CNAs for their work, and said she’s thankful she hasn’t contracted the virus herself. She also encouraged people to take the virus seriously, as she’s witnessed what it can do to those who are high-risk.
“CNAs, we are closer in contact with the residents. Any CNA is. Nurses, they pass through. They give injections. We bathe them. We clothe them. We put them to bed. We undress them. We feed them. We have direct contact, the constant touching, lifting, standing up, all that,” she said. “ … It feels good just to be appreciated to know we’re putting our lives on the line because some of these people out here don’t think this is real. They think it’s a joke. It’s no joke.”
In Howard County, 51 residents of long-term care facilities have died from the virus.