The stories about how Life Care Centers of America's champions of care battled COVID-19 all share a similar foundation: When the virus surfaced, leadership teams at facilities across the country banded together with their frontline caregivers to do whatever was necessary to battle and overcome a crisis no healthcare system or government was prepared to fight.
Executive directors worked as certified nursing assistants, maintenance supervisors became transporters and directors of nursing became bedside caregivers – all while continuing to fulfill their regular responsibilities.
However, what happened at Camellia Gardens of Life Care is in a class of its own when it comes to teamwork. Within weeks of the facility’s first positive COVID-19 test on April 1, several members of its leadership team got sick, including:
- Then Executive Director Vickie Cooper, who was set to retire at the end of April
- Current Executive Director Daniel Aragon, who was already working in the facility and had been selected to replace Cooper
- Director of Nursing Joni Jackson
- Assistant Director of Nursing Mia Brown
- MDS Nurse Melissa Dravus
- Maintenance Director Carey Walden
- Activities Director Candace Vickers
Only Alonza Lewis, the Blue Ridge Region vice president who came to the building on April 10 to assist Cooper, remained standing.
Still, over the 76 days from the first positive test to the facility being free from the virus, the team stayed connected as Camellia Gardens' associates bravely came face-to-face with the virus, battled it and ultimately stabilized their facility.
"They are such a family there. There was nothing that was going to stop them from taking care of their residents."
Jennifer Solomon, Eastern Division Vice President for Life Care Centers of America
- 42 resident cases: 9 deaths, 32 recovered, 1 discharged
- 27 associate cases; 27 recovered
- First case: April 1, 2020
- COVID-free: June 18, 2020
The outbreak at Camellia Gardens was the first among the 39 facilities in Solomon's division, which includes Life Care's facilities in Georgia, Kentucky, North Carolina, South Carolina, Tennessee and Virginia. Lewis quarterbacked the team inside the building, while Aragon, Jackson and Brown worked remotely throughout their 14-day quarantine.
"I was at home when a couple of residents died, and it hurt my heart. They had all survived so much in their lives, and this one pandemic came along and took them away. It hurt, bad."
Mia Brown, Assistant Director of Nursing
Evenutally, nine of the facility's residents died due to COVID-19, losses that continue to grieve the more than 100 associates that work at Camellia Gardens, which has served the Thomasville, Cairo and Moultrie communities for 52 years.
"Everyone was scared, but still committed to taking care of our residents," said Brown, who tested positive on April 9 and was out until April 27. "When I came back, I could see in person how hard it had been. My goal was to boost the morale of people who were fighting. I wanted to let everyone know that we were going to make it and were going to recover."
Lewis tirelessly made the 4-hour commute from his base in Lawrenceville, Georgia, to Thomasville for 11 straight weeks, living in a hotel during the week and returning home on Friday nights, only to get a change of clothes, repack his bags and be back on-site the following Monday morning.
Lewis never got sick.
"I felt compelled to to lead those heroic associates. My parents were concerned, but I told them from day one that God had me protected. For me, it was a test of faith, and I never believed I would get sick. It's hard to describe, but I had an inspired energy to help. I just knew my number was being called and that my team needed me."
Alonza Lewis, Blue Ridge Region Vice President