Feb. 29, 2020, is a day that will long be remembered.
Ironically, Leap Day turned out to be the day that one nursing home, and soon the entire country, took a leap into a year unlike any other.
That day, Life Care Center of Kirkland, Washington, received its first positive test results for COVID-19, starting the first known outbreak at a skilled nursing facility in the United States.
Ellie Schutt had just started at the facility as its executive director five weeks before.
“I could not believe it,” Ellie shared about finding out a resident had COVID-19. “I thought, ‘Is this really happening?’”
Several residents got sick, as well as several staff members. Life Care put out a call for volunteers to help with the outbreak. And some volunteers came, many from within the Life Care Centers of America family.
Nancy Butner, former executive director of Life Care Center of Kirkland, was serving as division vice president.
“Once I heard about the COVID-positive resident from Kirkland, I knew I would commit nearly all of my time to Kirkland,” Nancy shared. “I just couldn’t be anywhere else. Many of the patients and staff I have known for over 17 years. I care about them like family.”
Todd Fletcher, now president of Life Care and then vice president of Western Operations for the company, also joined the volunteers in doing whatever needed to be done – answering phones, taking out trash and buying lunch for the busy staff.
Clemente Aquino, Life Care’s vice president of Rehab Practice Standards, is from Washington and is licensed occupational therapist in the state. He flew all the way from the company’s headquarters in Cleveland, Tennessee, to assist with personal care needs on the night shift.
And Chelsey Earnest, then director of nursing at another Life Care facility in Washington, Garden Terrace Healthcare Center of Federal Way, got the call for help on her way to church. She left her home and took on the responsibilities of serving as head of nursing at Kirkland during the outbreak.
“I told my husband, ‘I have to go,’” Chelsey said.
Chelsey, who was recently promoted to regional director of clinical services, arrived on March 1 and stayed until May 28.
In the days and months that followed, much of the country’s attention centered around the Kirkland skilled nursing and rehab center. There was much to learn about this new virus. The media swarmed around the building. Families worried for their loved ones. And the staff inside focused on the hour-by-hour and minute-by-minute needs of their residents.
“Everybody was doing everything they could to take care of the patients,” Ellie shared. “Our division director of clinical services, Chukk Nielson, worked a medicine cart. The housekeepers worked around the clock. Rodrigo Espinoza in admissions worked as a certified nursing assistant, and so did our therapy department.”
The American medical community did not know much about the coronavirus at the time, and Chelsey, a nurse for 20 years, found herself in the position of learning firsthand about COVID-19, its manifestations and how quickly it could send patients from a simple cough to struggling to breathe. She started writing symptoms down on a white board, and on March 6, she took a picture of it to share with the medical community what she was seeing – from coughing and fever to red eyes.
“I’m an investigator at heart,” Chelsey said. “It’s just what I do.”
During the outbreak, Life Care Center of Kirkland lost 39 beloved residents to COVID-19.
Chelsey shared that it was God who got her through.
Ellie shared a similar thought: “There were days I wondered, ‘Can I continue doing this?’ But then I recognized it wasn’t about me. It was about my patients, and I thought, ‘If I’m not there, who is going to help them? Who is going to lead?’ It became a calling.”
“This pandemic has been the most difficult experience of my life,” said Nancy. “It has brought me to tears many times, and I had moments when I just didn’t think I could feel any more sadness. But what will stick with me for the rest of my life is how this pandemic has shown me what a wonderful group of staff I have the pleasure to work with.”
The team who worked at Life Care Center of Kirkland during March, April and May created a true bond. And the teamwork has served them well since then. The team well knows the importance of following infection control protocols and encourages each other by constantly reminding each other of the reason behind it all – protecting the residents and each other.
Since spring, the facility has not experienced another outbreak and has not lost additional residents to the disease.
During the outbreak Life Care got a letter from a citizen suggesting the building be shut down and turned into a COVID-19 museum, but that is far from what happened.
One family who moved their loved one out after the outbreak tried another facility and then brought their loved one back.
“We’re here; we’re together,” said Ellie. “We’ve locked arms, and we’re slowly coming back.”
Life Care Center of Kirkland has actually welcomed several new employees who joined because of the teamwork they have seen among the Kirkland staff.
“People want to be part of the new chapter,” Ellie said. “‘We want to be part of the greater good’ – I’ve heard that in several interviews.”
The facility has also gained new respect from citizens in the community, as well as their health care partners at local hospitals, fire departments and ambulance services.
And when residents and staff at the facility received the Pfizer vaccine this December and January, the hope and relief was evident.
It’s been a long year, as anyone at Life Care Center of Kirkland can tell you.
“The outbreak is something that happened to us,” Ellie said. “We just happened to be the first.”
Todd said, “So many emotions bubble up when thinking about Life Care of Kirkland and what we went through together as Life Care associates. I remember how tough the battle was and continues to be for our facilities fighting COVID. Our associates have been through so much, and I continue to marvel at their tenacity and passion for the work that we do. Our residents and their loved ones have gone through an incredible year. Most of all, we remember those that we lost, and that’s been very painful. We certainly thank all of those who supported us. Our community of Kirkland and the health care community was incredible, and we are forever grateful. This I know: our Life Care associates have banded together and supported each other through this very difficult year. We are wiser and more committed than ever to the very important work that we do, providing excellent care and comfort to our precious residents.”
Nancy summed up her experience this way:
“It is through the most difficult times that we learn what we are truly capable of. While Kirkland will forever be changed, it has returned to a well-functioning rehabilitation and long-term care facility. My hope is that the staff continue to heal and overcome what they have gone through. It will take some time, but they are all champions.”