Some of the staff at the Parkway Pavilion Health and Rehabilitation Center in Enfield.

Bravery. Courage.

Bravery: “The quality or state of having or showing mental or moral strength to face danger, fear, or difficulty.”

Courage: “Mental or moral strength to venture, persevere, and withstand danger, fear, or difficulty.”

Over the past seven days, I’ve had the absolute honor to work alongside women and men whose actions define these two words —bravery and courage—with an accuracy and depth no dictionary definition can ever truly capture. I’d like to share some of those actions with you, and to reflect on the way the past week has, at least for me, redefined what it means to be brave and courageous.

On Thursday evening, April 9, I spent some time speaking with one of our directors of nursing. This director is one of our people who basically grew up on the job; she began as a volunteer in her youth; in high school she worked in the dietary department and then, after graduation, came on-board as a Certified Nursing Assistant (CNA). She continued as a CNA while working her way through nursing school, eventually moving through the nursing management ranks to her current role, which she has held for over three years.

More of the staff at Parkway Pavilion Health and Rehabilitation Center. Courtesy of Parkway Pavilion

We spoke for a while that evening —about the challenges of the current crisis and how hard it was for her to watch the staff and residents she loved suffer in the face of this relentless pandemic. But even though, at times, the struggle felt hopeless, she was determined to fight back with everything she had.

Less than two hours later, her husband called me to tell me she was being taken by ambulance to the hospital.

Around midnight, she called my cell phone to provide me with an update on her condition: She was going to be tested to COVID-19 and likely admitted to the hospital. Two days later, her test results came back: COVID-19 positive.

The real heroes in this battle against the COVID-19 virus are the frontline workers in nursing facilities.

Today —April 17, a mere week after being hospitalized, this director returned to work because she knew she was needed. She understood there was some risk in returning so soon, but that risk was nothing compared to her sense of duty; to her determination to help those who were depending on her; to her bravery and courage.

Our organization employs a total of 472 individuals. Of those 472 employees, 108 —a staggering 23 percent of our workforce— have had to be put out of work due to symptomology consistent with the COVID-19 virus. Yet, 49 of those 108 employees (45 percent) have returned to work — to a new normal of N95 face masks, face shields, goggles, gloves and gowns. They have watched some of our residents, whom they love like their own family, become ill, and while we have been able to treat many of our residents at our facilities, some have required hospitalization and some we have lost. And yet, despite it all, these individuals persevere.

Bravery. Courage.

I have spent the last week at one of our facilities while the leadership team was decimated by the virus. This experience provided me with more perspective and insight than I had previously experienced in almost 30 years in the long-term care industry.

Some of the nursing staff at Parkway Pavilion Health and Rehabilitation Center in Enfield.

The real heroes in this battle against the COVID-19 virus are the frontline workers in nursing facilities. They come to work every day and are greeted with health screening questionnaires, thermometers and extensive protective equipment. But for our staff, these are trivial inconveniences which they endure with a smile. They don’t complain; they understand. Above all, our staff simply want to see their residents and provide the outstanding care they know is —now more than ever — so desperately needed.

These heroes thank me for buying them lunch and providing them with bottled waters and snacks. I wish there was a way I could convey my gratitude to them for coming to work when it may be easier to stay home; for protecting those they love; and for continuing to come to work despite the fact that given the current shortage of qualified caregivers in our industry they could find another job in healthcare.

But you see, for these women and men, working in all departments in a nursing facility is more than a job. Our residents are more than clients; they are family. Given the restrictions on visitation in nursing facilities at this time, we become the residents’ family. While we encourage Skype and FaceTime so residents and their families can see one another and interact, the staff at our facilities are providing the face-to-face interaction, the smiles, the laughs, the tears. Name the emotion, and these past few weeks our staff and residents have experienced it, together.

Bravery. Courage.

Finally, I want to thank anyone who works in a nursing facility in the United States. In particular, I want to thank those working in our facilities: Den-Mar Health & Rehabilitation Center in Rockport, MA; Harbor Village Rehabilitation & Nursing Center in New London; Parkway Pavilion Health & Rehabilitation Center in Enfield,  and Quincy Health & Rehabilitation Center in Quincy, MA.

You are all heroes in my mind as you continue to persevere in the face of danger, fear and difficulty.

Bravery. Courage.

Steven Vera is Chief Executive Officer of Wachusett Ventures, LLC, which operates two Connecticut and two Massachusetts nursing homes.

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