Champions in Action
Jan. 11 and 12, 2021, were happy days at Rivergate Health Care Center. The excitement could be felt throughout the building as pharmacy partner CVS administered the new COVID-19 vaccine. Stickers saying, "I took one for the team!" and "Educated and Vaccinated," were handed out as residents and associates alike got vaccinated.
"It's an understatement to say this pandemic has been difficult, but the vaccine offers hope as we move forward," said Michelle Peeper, executive director at the facility.
Between April and May, the associates of the facility battled the virus and implemented stringent safety measures. Peeper said she is encouraging residents and associates to be vaccinated but is not requiring it. Additional vaccine clinics will be hosted to complete the vaccine process.
Getting this vaccine was one way for me to honor our lost residents. We will never forget them, but we move forward because that's what champions do. We never stop, and we never settle.
Michelle Peeper, executive director at Rivergate Health Care Center
Fighting a pandemic was not something that most medical professionals anticipated facing in their careers, but the heroes at Rivergate Health Care Center rose to the occasion and fought bravely to protect their residents, who are like family. Here is the story of their COVID-19 journey…
Rivergate Terrace and Rivergate Health Care Center have spent 49 years building trust with the Riverview community they serve. The two Life Care facilities on Pennsylvania Road have provided a high level of service to more than 26,000 residents and patients since 1971 – more than two times the population of the local community.
That trust they have built is founded on four decades of providing quality of skilled nursing and rehabilitation services, but also as a partner in Riverview and Metropolitan Downriver Detroit. The Rivergate Complex is embedded in its communities as a significant taxpayer, and its more than 600 associates support the local economy every day.
Rivergate Terrace and Rivergate Health Care Center annually participate in community events and support local healthcare charities. Combined, the two facilities represent the largest campus in the Life Care Centers of America system.
On March 25, COVID-19 came to Rivergate Terrace, then to Rivergate Health Care Center on April 6. Like healthcare workers in skilled nursing facilities across the country, associates at the Rivergate Complex found themselves fighting a lethal virus no government or healthcare system was prepared for. Fear of the unknown shook everyone's confidence.
Michelle Peeper, executive director at Rivergate Health Care Center, knows the intensity of serving in the military when the country is at war.
"I served in the U.S. Army and this pandemic has been more difficult."
Michelle Peeper, Executive Director at Rivergate Health Care Center
The loss of life and the pain associated with losing residents was immense, but the devastating impact of the virus on the Rivergate Complex cuts even deeper because the virus also took the life of 42-year Rivergate Terrace associate Mary Pongracz. Both Rivergate Terrace and Rivergate Health Care Center held memorial services on Oct. 22 to honor those who lost their lives due to COVID-19, and a permanent plaque was dedicated on the grounds of both facilities. The memorial services for Rivergate Terrace and Rivergate Health Care Center can be viewed at the links below.
John Polturanus, regional vice president for Life Care’s Lakes Region , which includes Michigan, has spent 41 years around the Rivergate Complex. More than most, he feels a deeper sorrow over the loss of residents and his friend Mary
"When you do what we do, it’s hard to describe what it was like to lose our residents. Mary gave her life to do what she did for 42 years, serve our residents and patients."
John Polturanus, Regional Vice President
Mary Pongracz, 42 years of service
Life Care Centers of America has lost 16 associates across the country during its battle with COVID-19 in 2020, none with a longer tenure than the 42 years Mary Pongracz served the company. On Aug. 27, Life Care honored Mary and the other 15 associates in a memorial service at the company's headquarters in Cleveland, Tennessee.
Here is how Mary, a laundry supervisor, was remembered during that service:
"Mary provided her patients with extraordinary TLC, always held them as her first priority. She took much pride in her work. In regards to workplace gossip, one of her favorite sayings was 'I hope they are talking about me; this way they are leaving someone else alone.' She was a great colleague and friend and will be truly missed. She left a great footprint on this earth and touched many lives."
Peeper, along with Rivergate Terrace Executive Director Sujata Chaddha and their associates, watched COVID-19 move across the country in the first weeks of March. In response, they proactively re-emphasized infection control protocols at their facilities and retrained their associates on the use of PPE. They also proactively reduced outside visitation before the order to do so came down from Gov. Gretchen Whitmer.
Still, just as it did in nursing homes across the country, the virus started in each facility quickly and spread rapidly as patients and residents started getting sick. In the first few weeks of their outbreaks, neither facility had access to testing, staffing was difficult, more PPE was needed and the media were calling every day.
Kelly Belcher, a regional director for business development based in Columbus, Ohio, organized associates from her four Ohio Life Care facilities to go to Lowe's and Home Depot stores in their communities, in search of PPE. Local dentist offices in Columbus, closed due to the lockdown, donated supplies they were not using. Once the PPE was collected, the team drove 90 minutes to the Michigan border to meet a Rivergate associate who took the donated PPE to the buildings.
"It was amazing teamwork. It was just something we had to do to help the associates in Riverview who were fighting for their residents while risking their own safety."
Kelly Belcher, Regional Director of Business Development
COVID-19 and the massive amount of negative publicity around the skilled nursing industry as the pandemic attacked America in the spring has caused Americans to be cautious about nursing homes. It’s something Polturanus understands, but he believes the nearly 50-year legacy of service Life Care’s facilities in Riverview have already established will quickly restore the local community’s confidence in Rivergate Terrace and Rivergate Health Care Center. Ongoing outside visitations that bring families back to the Rivergate Complex will address some of those concerns, Polturanus says.
"The virus scared everybody, and still does, but our communities know us and the quality of health care we have delivered for nearly five decades. The crisis we faced made us stronger, more focused and better prepared. Families in the communities we serve can be confident that the residents and patients we care for receive a high level of service in the safest possible environment."
John Polturanus, Regional Vice President
The Vigilance Continues
An increased focus on infection control and safety are part of the lessons learned by the skilled nursing industry due to battling COVID-19. Rivergate Terrace and Rivergate Health Care Center are being vigilant to invest in new technology and implement strengthened safety in our facilities. That vigilance includes:
- Providing every patient with a routine clinical assessment.
- Using "Point of Care" testing equipment from the federal government.
- An ongoing surveillance testing program that continues for staff, per state requirement.
- A policy that states new admissions will be placed in quarantine for at least 14 days, allowing for observation to focus on preventing any new introduction of the virus into the facility.
- Ongoing communication with family members includes monitored outdoor visits, window visits, texts, phone calls, FaceTime calls and "drive-by" parades to keep families connected to their loved ones.
- Strict adherence to CDC, CMS and state health department infection control protocols will be maintained.
- Training for associates will be continuously updated based on regulations and first-hand experience in controlling the virus.