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We wait in our nursing home, helpless and scared, knowing the virus is coming for us

I’ve been locked in my room, and living in this place doesn’t feel safe.

An elderly resident spends time in her room next to a sign that reads "Everything is going to be fine" during lockdown amid the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) outbreak at Oteruelo nursing home in Valverde del Majano, Spain, April 21, 2020. (REUTERS/Susana Vera)
An elderly resident spends time in her room next to a sign that reads "Everything is going to be fine" during lockdown amid the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) outbreak at Oteruelo nursing home in Valverde del Majano, Spain, April 21, 2020. (REUTERS/Susana Vera)

I moved into a Colorado nursing home in 2017, when I was 66 years old. With my advanced multiple sclerosis and heart condition, I needed full-time help, but it was hard to get my head around the idea that I’d stay here for the rest of my life. The people around you don’t think you know what’s going on. You’re supposed to lead a sheltered life: Your meals are prepared for you. Your medicines are organized for you. Administrators schedule exercise, and they try to talk you into it even when you don’t feel like joining — they seem to believe you don’t know your own mind.

The coronavirus makes it so much worse. I’ve been locked in my room, and living in this place doesn’t feel safe.

First, I overheard rumors about people coming down with the virus — a nurse in a different wing, a resident who had to be moved upstairs to a separate floor. Here, you can learn things through the grapevine, if you listen to staff members talking to each other and ask the right questions to the person willing to answer you. It’s very stressful not to know what’s going on.

Then, a few weeks ago, Christine moved into my room from across the hall. (To protect her privacy, I’m using a pseudonym.) She had a terrible, deep cough — a “smoker’s cough,” she said — and the staff had given her a mask in late March, to wear whenever she left the room or had a nursing assistant come in. They worried that she might have the coronavirus.

I’d been wearing a mask off and on, and after Christine moved in, I decided to keep it on full-time. Awhile back, when some bug was going around — long before we’d even heard of the coronavirus — a nursing assistant had given me a few masks, and I’d kept them in a drawer. At first, the head of the nursing home tried to get me to take it off — otherwise, he said, everyone would want one. I refused. As time went on, it became more normal to wear a mask. Everyone on staff did, and they tried to convince the residents that it was a necessity.

Christine kept getting worse, hacking like she was about to throw up. She complained that she felt tired and hot, even though we’d opened the window to let in fresh air. She said she just wanted to rest, but staff members kept coming in, encouraging us to do “enrichment projects” — puzzles and things — or offering us snacks. The staff usually checks everyone’s vitals three times a day, but people took Christine’s temperature every hour, all through the day and night. They did not look happy with the results. Someone woke me up at 1 in the morning to take my temperature one night, and from then on, my vitals got checked more often, too. I didn’t have a fever.

On April 13, after Christine’s symptoms dragged on for almost a week, and worsened, nurses swabbed her throat to test for the coronavirus; they also took a chest X-ray. I wondered what the results would mean for me. The fourth floor, where we thought they would quarantine coronavirus patients, isn’t known to be a “nice floor.” What if I was healthy but was forced to go upstairs along with my roommate, and then I got exposed to the virus there?

Should I stop hugging my grandkid in the name of ‘social distancing’?

Fewer and fewer staff members showed up to work, but I didn’t know if it was because they were getting sick or if they were scared to come. I kept seeing the same faces, for longer hours. There are around 25 residents on my floor. Normally, we had three people working on the floor during each day shift, but we got down to two people, sometimes one. When you hit the call light, it took longer for someone to come.

On April 15, the nursing home called my daughter, notifying her that Christine was positive. She asked them to test me too. I got a swab, and then they officially put us in isolation — together. Meanwhile, it seemed like no one had told Christine anything about her results. Everyone around us — the staff, Christine’s relatives — kept talking sideways around her illness, acting as if nothing unusual was happening. I just about threw a fit — it wasn’t right for them to keep it from her, but I didn’t think she should have to hear it from me. I encouraged her to keep pressing the staff about her results. Meanwhile, she was getting worse and worse (she felt hot, sick to her stomach, too weak to get to the bathroom on her own), and I could only watch, helpless, from a few feet away. I could tell that Christine was getting really scared. At night, she had bad dreams and begged for someone to come and sit with her.

But nothing about our daily routine was going to change. The staff said that they would not separate us, and that they didn’t have another room to put me in, anyway. Christine kept saying, “Help me.” I’d ask her to say where she hurt, or if I should hit the call button for her. When the nurses came, they said there was nothing they could give her — that this was a virus and there wasn’t a cure. I couldn’t do anything to make Christine feel better, and I couldn’t leave to keep myself safe. The staff kept insisting that I’d be fine staying in the room. My concerns were falling on deaf ears.

The next day, Christine asked a nurse about her test results. Only then did someone tell her the news: She had the coronavirus. Christine got really upset — not just for her own health, but because I’d been exposed and might come down with it.

But I was lucky: Based on what I was telling my daughter, she became alarmed. She called nursing home administrators, doctors, government and health officials. She must have reached the right person and gotten them to listen, because I was moved into a separate room that afternoon. I was relieved to be in a different space, but I felt sad for Christine. Although we didn’t know each other well, at least she had someone to talk to when we lived together. I hoped that somebody else would keep her company, but I knew that probably wouldn’t happen — it’s too dangerous.

My test came back negative for the virus, but since I’d shared the space with Christine for at least 24 hours after the swab, I’m in quarantine. When someone comes into my new room, they have to wear all kinds of gear: cap, gown, gloves, shoe covers, and a mask and plastic visor over their faces. For now, I’m isolated, and we’re waiting to see if I get any symptoms. I feel fine, physically — but I’m scared.

Whenever a nurse or an assistant helps me with something, I try to thank them. That’s one good thing about this place: The staff members are nice and thoughtful, even in these strained times. They’re working especially hard. Just by showing up, they’re risking their lives for us — and some of them have families at home, including small kids. I appreciate that they care enough to continue coming in and taking care of us. They’re pretty much my only friends here, and I hope they come out of this okay.

My family keeps calling to check on me — even family I haven’t heard from in a while. Every resident’s relatives are calling the nursing home for updates. We hear only bits and pieces of the truth. If you ask someone what’s going on — whether there are any new developments, whether there are more cases — they give evasive answers more often than not. They say it’s for privacy reasons; I think they’re afraid of how we’ll react. But not knowing just makes everything worse.

Every day, I keep up with the news. I listen to the BBC and other programs on the radio, and I watch the nightly news broadcasts on television. My nursing home has not reported any deaths yet, but I see the reports every night about new outbreaks in long-term-care facilities or about the fatality rate in people my age. One time, a nurse told me to turn off the TV, because the media was causing her too much anxiety. “To heck with that,” I said. “I want to know what’s going on, because we are secluded.” How would you feel if you were next in line to get this virus — if you were in danger — and no one would tell you anything?

As told to Post editor Sophia Nguyen

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