I am writing in response to the numerous articles and television news stories covering the COVID-19 pandemic’s effect on skilled nursing facilities throughout the state. It is heartbreaking to read the villainization of the facilities that are fighting on the front lines in this pandemic. We see the health dare heroes of the hospitals, the delivery serviceman, store employees and dentists. And yet, the front line workers of skilled nursing facilities are torn to shreds by the media, some from the community and the government. I am writing in the hopes that you will share this so that people may understand the reality inside the nursing facilities during this pandemic.
I am a proud employee of a skilled nursing facility. I have never loved working anywhere more; so much in fact, I have spent most of my career as an employee here. Many of my colleagues can say the same, many of which have been here 30 or more years. Many may ask why we would want to be employees for a nursing home. It is an easy answer: it is a calling.
I have had the opportunity to work with the most talented team of professionals, many with high education and the ability to work in more well-respected establishments, including hospitals. But they do not. They choose to work in skilled nursing facilities. Yes, highly educated individuals who can work in so many other places but choose to work here. They choose it because it’s their life work, and they love the residents that have become part of their extended family. The same could be said for most employees of any skilled nursing facility.
We watched as this pandemic closed in on our state, watching in fear as the storm clouds closed in. We all prepared as best we could, scouring the earth for protective equipment, working constant hours in preparation to withstand the tidal wave that has hit our state’s nursing homes. In so many facilities, there are incredible and talented teams that prepared for it to the best of their abilities, but nothing could possibly prepare your facility for what comes. A devious, silent and lethal virus that creeps in and ransacks your residents despite locking down the facilities like Fort Knox. Every precaution taken; every screening tool used. But alas, it sneaks its way in through the back door. Even the best facilities in the state have been under siege; by the virus, by the government and by the media.
So, as you watch the horrific physical and emotional toll it’s taking on the hospital workers, think also of the horror of caring for and watching someone you have provided care and protection to for years that have become a member of your family contract, suffer and die from this vicious virus. All the while, you are completely helpless in preventing their death after they’ve contracted it.
Skilled nursing facility doctors, nurses, nursing assistants, therapists, dietary staff, housekeeping, maintenance workers and sdministrative staff have been infected, brought it home to their families and some have lost their lives. The overwhelming question that you cannot help but ask is: will I be next? And when you have finished your 16-hour shift, watching those who you love suffer, decline and die in a matter of days, and have finished your daily episode of crying from exhaustion, fear and from grief, you turn on the television or read in the paper what a poor job you’re doing.
What isn’t shared with you is that many employees cross the facility for a variety of reasons. The first person who may contaminate a facility may be a staff educator who has no idea she contracted COVID-19 while at the grocery store and is asymptomatic. Or perhaps, a dietary aide, a nurse. Truly anyone can be the carrier, and not know. And despite properly putting on and safely removing PPE, a small contamination can spread like wildfire before anyone even knows it is even there. That is the reality of the virus. Factories are contaminated across the country; patients are becoming infected while in the hospital for other reasons. And only skilled nursing facilities are taking the spotlight. It is cruel and unjust.
We, skilled nursing facilities, are working in fear of our own lives, our family’s lives, in fear of losing any (or more) of our beloved residents, losing our friends and coworkers. We are watching the people we care for and love succumb to the virus, holding their hands while they take their last breaths on this earth because their families are unable to.
We care for the thousands of nursing home residents across the state and do whatever it takes to keep them as safe as we possibly can. We are doing whatever it takes to connect our resident’s families to them and comfort their families while fighting back our own tears. We will show up. We will care for our residents, no matter the infection, no matter the risk, no matter the cost and no matter the criticism. We will never give up. We are heroes, too.
Alyssa Cohen is a skilled nursing facility Admissions Director in East Hampton.