Nearly a month ago, Terri Taylor, a licensed practical nurse, had to tell her children she was leaving and didn’t know when she would be back.
The single mother of four, who works for Shannex in Fredericton, had agreed to go to Saint John to care for COVID-positive residents at the Tucker Hall nursing home, where an outbreak was declared on Nov. 20.
“It was an easy choice to make in the sense that I knew it was what I had to do,” said Taylor, 38. “But even the easiest of choices come with a lot of heartache sometimes.”
Her two sons and two daughters, aged 10 to 19, understood why she needed to go, but “there was a lot of uncertainty, a lot of fear.”
“And it certainly has not been easy to be away from everybody and everything that I know and love,” Taylor said during a telephone interview from her Saint John hotel room, where she’s now into Day 2 of her 14-day quarantine.
Shannex is decommissioning the COVID-19 unit, or “cohorting area,” at Tucker Hall, where Taylor worked.
Although a new case in an employee was just announced on Thursday, bringing the total confirmed cases to 20, “all residents will be considered recovered” by Sunday, said Shannex spokesperson Isabelle Landry.
Taylor recalls donning the personal protective equipment and walking into the sterile cohorting area for the first time. It felt like she was “walking into an alternate universe.”
She knew at that point, there was no turning back. “It was a little scary at first,” she admits.
Then it was a jumble of thoughts and emotions.
‘Putting ourselves at risk’
“There was a sense of pride, sense of fear, a sense of sadness for leaving my children, a sense of sorrow for the families not being able to be with their loved ones — the residents, of course, being displaced from their normal day-to-day routine.
“And then, of course, the heaviness that weighed on all of us, that we all have lives at home and we were all putting ourselves at risk of getting COVID. So that was a pretty heavy burden to carry.”
The team of 12 — four nurses and eight continuing care assistants — became “instantaneous friends,” “almost like family because we’re all navigating the same waters with similar stories and we have our own sacrifices that we’ve made,” she said.
As a licensed practical nurse, Taylor collaborated with the doctor and other health-care professionals, managing the care plans of the COVID-positive residents and their rapidly changing needs.
She administered their medication, monitored their oxygen therapy and performed blood work.
Eleven Shannex residents have tested positive since the outbreak started. They’ve ranged in age from their 70s into their 100s, said Taylor.
“I can’t get into great detail, but we have some that were definitely very, very ill,” she said. “And there were some moments that we didn’t know what the outcome might be for some of them.”
Tucker Hall hasn’t had any COVID-19-related deaths. One resident who tested positive died on Dec. 13, but not as a result of COVID-19, Public Health has said.
“So that’s definitely a testament to our team and to the residents themselves and their strength. It’s unbelievable,” said Taylor, pointing out that for the eldest residents, this is the second global pandemic they’ve survived.
Residents the real heroes
Six of the eight Shannex employees who tested positive have also recovered and been cleared by Public Health, according to the spokesperson. The other two are recovering at home, Landry said. She did not provide an update on the one non-Shannex employee who tested positive.
Although the residents couldn’t see one another, they supported each other and relied on each other, said Taylor.
“Really, they were the heroes. They were the fighters.”
She quickly developed a “very special bond” with them, even though they had to identify her by her eyes — the only distinguishable feature under all her personal protective equipment. “It was incredibly easy to care for them because they were just absolutely lovely.”
When she met Garda Bishop, 87, she knew her daughter usually visited her every day for tea, so she anticipated she might be a little sad since she wasn’t able to see her.
Taylor gave Bishop her medication and chatted with her as long as she could.
“I could tell the little love just wanted somebody to visit.”
Bishop asked her to sit and have a cup of tea but because of her PPE and COVID protocols, she wasn’t able to and had to move on to other tasks.
When Taylor checked back on Bishop a little while later, the patient had saved half her cup of tea and two wafers from her snack for her.
“She was just so sweet,” said Taylor.
She also described her as “strong” and “resilient,” with “a lot of personality” and “spunk.”
Bishop has recovered in time to be “reunited with her family” for the holidays, according to Shannex.
Just love freely and love always.– Garda Bishop, COVID-19-recovered Tucker Hall resident
“The people take such good care of me here and they even keep me company while I enjoy my cup of tea at night,” a news release quotes Bishop as saying.
“I feel as good now as I was feeling before getting the virus. Now, I can’t wait to see my family again, just in time for the holidays.”
Outbreaks typically aren’t declared over until 28 days — two COVID-19 incubation periods — after the latest case tested positive, which, as it stands, won’t be until around Jan. 14.
But Landry explained in a follow-up email Saturday afternoon that Shannex plans to make as many window and virtual visit arrangements as possible for Bishop and other Tucker Hall residents over the holidays “so they can connect with their families.”
Taylor said she asked Bishop one day how she managed to keep so positive and she replied, “Just love freely and love always.”
“And I just I hung onto that,” Taylor said. It helped see her through some of the more challenging days, when she was working 16-hour shifts because the team was slowly cut in half, either because members tested positive or were a close contact of a positive case.
Taylor said she thought about the seniors at the Thomas Hall nursing home in Fredericton, where she normally works, and the care she would want them to receive.
She also thought about her eldest son, who suffered a serious brain injury after being struck by a car in Fredericton Jan. 8, near the corner of Prospect Street and Duncan Lane.
“It wasn’t that long ago that I was on the receiving end of needing excellent care, which was provided, thankfully,” she said.
Taylor noted the “sad irony” that 2020 started for her family much the way it’s ending. When her son was rushed to the Saint John Regional Hospital, she had to leave her other children, unsure when she would be back, to be by his side as he fought for his life.
“But that had a happy ending. And so will this.”
Alex Nelson has recovered “remarkably well” and has started working for Shannex in support services at Neill Hall in Fredericton.
His accident was part of the reason Taylor didn’t hesitate when Shannex asked if she would go work in the COVID unit in Saint John.
“I finally had the opportunity to pay back just a little bit of what they did for me and my family,” she said.
Taylor was off work for several months during Alex’s recovery, she was housed at Tucker Hall, and Shannex helped take care of her three children, who stayed with their father in Fredericton, including reserving the movie theatre at the nursing home complex for them and their friends “to try to keep things kind of normal.”
“It just seemed natural to me to come here to help out.”
Watching people recover was a gift, she said. “That gives you that energy that you need, watching them mend. The sorrow started to lift and you could see hope again. And it was just a really nice feeling.”
The COVID unit was shut down Thursday, Taylor said. “We even had to leave our [work] shoes there because they had to be incinerated.”
“It was kind of a symbolic gesture, I guess, leaving our COVID shoes behind.”
Now Taylor is watching “entirely too much” of the reality series 90 Day Fiancé on TLC, eating more “church lady cookies” from the North Side Assembly Pentecostal church than she ever thought possible, talking on the phone, texting, sleeping — anything she can think of to pass the isolation time until she can get back home to her children.
She already missed her daughter Julia’s 17th birthday on Thursday and she’s going to have to spend Christmas alone. “That’s going to be tough,” she said.
Christmas alone ‘counting blessings’
Initially, the COVID team thought they’d be able to celebrate together, but because the unit has been decommissioned and they’re in quarantine, they’re not allowed to see one another.
“It will definitely be lonely— I get emotional thinking about it,” she said, fighting back tears.
“It definitely just kind of reminds you of the real reason for Christmas and you know, I was very, very, very close to not having my son with us at all for Christmas ever again. So, he is with us and my family’s healthy. … So I’m just going to get through it counting my blessings and just remembering why we’ve made these sacrifices.”
Taylor will FaceTime with her children on Christmas Eve and again on Christmas Day. But she doesn’t plan to give them any gifts until Jan. 2, when her quarantine is hopefully over and they can celebrate “Christmas 2.0.”
Her quarantine is scheduled to end Dec. 31 at midnight.
“At 12:01 a.m. I’m a free woman. So that will be a New Year’s to remember,” she said. “Hopefully symbolic of 2021 bringing much better things.”
She hasn’t made any plans. It all hinges on her final test on Dec. 27.
“Lord willing, I don’t contract COVID between now and then.”
Once she’s cleared, would she do it again?
“Absolutely. … As hard as it’s been, you know, we would do it again.
“I hope we don’t have to. But if the need is there and if the pandemic ever broke out in another campus, we would certainly be there in a heartbeat.”