Editor’s note: Below is an essay by Lisa Persson, director of nursing at Life Care Center of Wilbraham, Massachusetts. The story of Jennie Stejna’s recovery (and celebratory Bud Light) has gone viral, but we wanted to let Lisa share more about her personal experience with COVID-19 and one woman’s victory!
March 1, 2020, was the day that life as I knew it changed for me forever.
That was the morning that I woke to the news that a sister facility, Life Care Center of Kirkland, [Washington,] had become the epicenter for the dreaded coronavirus. As the days passed, I watched as that facility, staff and our company endured endless blame for having such an “epidemic take hold of its facility.”
As a director of nurses for Life Care Centers of America, I know the heart of the company and how each of its staff members, in every facility, goes to work every day determined to make the lives of our residents better.
As a director of nurses, I knew that harder days were coming not only for our company, but for our industry, because this dreaded virus was about to overtake most long-term care facilities around the nation and that even with the best of effort, there was only so much that could be done to try to prevent it from coming into our settings. We needed to prepare ourselves on so many levels, physically and emotionally.
Fast forward to March 13, the day the families left, after tearful goodbyes to their loved ones and promises from staff to protect their family members as best as we could. The ban on visitors in long-term care facilities had now been implemented, and it was unknown when the families would be able to laugh and hug their mothers, fathers or family members again.
That night, as I was leaving, I remember looking at the once-lively lobby, filled with warmth from the fireplace and the chatter of families and residents sharing their day’s stories with each other – now darkened, sad and silent. I remember the feeling of how odd it was that the deafening silence somehow echoed what we were all feeling inside as we said goodbye to our life as we knew it.
Our facility was able to keep the virus outside our building for six weeks, but not without the hard work of our entire team. Many hours were spent on education to staff and residents, constant cleaning rounds and attempts at obtaining PPE to ensure we were prepared for the fight against the invisible enemy we would be undoubtedly be facing soon. Days were spent of reassuring families and staff, praying and reminding them that we needed to walk with faith over fear.
The day that we all were dreading finally came on April 18. The virus had now found its way into our facility even after the endless hours of preparation that staff had worked so hard to implement. And while we all know that this virus does not discriminate, I could not understand how or why it had chosen one of our oldest and most frail residents, Jennie Stejna – 103 years old.
Jennie, who is blind and frail in body but not in spirit. Jennie, whose one love was to sit in her chair and listen on her old transistor radio to every Red Sox game and complain how “all they do is talk. Why can’t they just play the game, for God’s sake?”
I remember thinking that the battle was lost. There would be no way that this woman, at 103 years old, could beat the demon that we have all seen on the nightly news. … Our staff had to readjust our battle plan now that the virus had made its way into the building. We now had to figure out how to love each of our residents through the war that was now just beginning for us. Our first course of action was to figure out how to try to pull Jennie through this fight that she was going to be facing.
We developed a plan that would allow for two of our nurses, Deb Hite and Morgan Cruz, who volunteered to care for our first COVID-19 positive patient, to focus all their care solely on Jennie. By having a dedicated staff to care for Jennie, we would ensure that she would have constant care, and we would also help to further prevent the exposure to other residents and staff.
We were prepared for two things: either help Jennie survive the coronavirus, or help her, when and if her time came, to go peacefully, knowing that she would not be able to fight the virus alone and if she was going to leave this world, she would not be alone at the end. Night after night and day after day, for more than two weeks, these two nurses each worked 12-hour shifts, putting themselves at risk and limiting their access to their own families.
They provided all the care for Jennie, day upon day, pushing Jennie to drink, eat and even get out of bed when all she wanted to do was refuse and give up at times. Many nights were spent worrying that the fever that overtook her body would eventually overtake her soul.
And one day, I had to make that call that every medical professional just does not want to make, the call to Jennie’s family member to discuss that she may not be making it through the night. Jennie had stopped drinking and needed more pain medication. It did not look like she would be making it through this. I remember ending the call, reassuring her nephew that at the end, she would not be left alone, and then hanging up in tears, because despite the promises we had made to ourselves and families, we had failed in this struggle.
As I left work that night, my thoughts were consumed by thoughts of all of our residents, all the emotional havoc this horrible virus was causing for our families and staff. As I sat down heavy-hearted and emotionally drained, I turned on the television to catch up on the updated news status of the virus. I was once again hit with how the long-term care facilities were “causing harm” to our residents and how dare we “have group activities” that could have possibly caused the virus to enter into buildings and kill our elderly.
I quietly just shook my head and thought, “What about what we actually do? We take the best care possible of our residents. We attempt to give them the quality of life that they, as our most precious commodity, deserve. What about the 70-year-old CNA who comes to work each and every day to bathe, feed, lift, laugh and love her residents, or the housekeeper that stops to buy a resident her favorite coffee every day because she knows that would bring a moment of sunshine to the woman whose sole joy comes from sitting and listening to the Red Sox game on her transistor radio?”
Where was that being broadcast?
I stopped that day, stopped watching updates on the nightly news. Instead I would fast-forward to the positive segments, like the “Person of the Week” section of the broadcast. I was determined that I would not let the negative fill my mind, that I would take my inspiration only from the positives, hearing only the good chapters in people’s lives, because there was already too much sadness, including that our team would most likely be saying goodbye to one of our own soon.
The next day, as I was preparing myself for whatever I might be facing in the coming day, I reminded myself that I would need to put on my brave face and help my staff – especially the two dedicated nurses who had been caring endlessly for Jennie – prepare themselves for losing our resident, without them losing the faith that they did all they could for Jennie.
As I walked into work that morning to meet with Jennie’s nurse to get a status update, I was met with a smile on the nurse’s face. Jennie had started to eat and drink and was cussing up a storm, saying, “I am not sick. I feel fine.”
As I went in to see Jennie, I could see that her fighting spirit was back. She was awake, wanting to drink and in total denial about her having been sick. It was then that I knew, knew that just maybe, maybe we saved the one, with our team’s determination, prayers and love.
It has now been over 21 days since Jennie was first diagnosed with having the virus, and she is now not showing any signs of the virus and is recovered. She is in the process of moving back to her room on our extended care unit and visiting with her regular caregivers that have become her extended family.
As for our team members, we are planning on a celebration for many things – Jennie’s recovery, the confirmation of our faith in our company (that has been nothing but supportive), all our frontline workers in our industry working endlessly to help pull our residents through this challenging time and confirmation that in the end, the care, compassion and love that we give our residents each and every day matters.
But this battle against the invisible enemy has come at a cost. It’s left its emotional and physical scars on all of us. To the people who watch from afar and think that Jennie’s journey or our staff’s journey through this battle has been an easy one, it has not. However, watching Jennie’s determination to live has given me and my staff a renewed purpose.
We can choose to focus on the negative stigma that the long-term care industry is portrayed as in the public, or we can choose to focus on the positive and let our work speak for itself.
It is in the silent moments, when the pain of losing one of our own is so intense, that we grieve and ask the questions. Is it worth the pain? Is it worth the exhaustion or missed opportunities with our own families?
However, it is the outcomes like Jennie’s that remind us that yes, it is worth it. Every second of the battle is worth it, even to save the one.