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Hero of the Day: Nursing home administrator cares for coronavirus-stricken residents

When the coronavirus struck the St. Joseph’s Senior Nursing Home, it spread like wildfire.

In six short days, one infection turned into 94 presumed positives at the New Jersey facility.

Then staff started falling ill, and soon there were just three nuns left to care for the victims — until Terri Rufo volunteered to help.

“We didn’t know what situation the residents were in, it seems like the natural thing to go and help if someone asked you to help,” said Rufo, 45, a registered nurse and nursing home administrator for the CareOne at Holmdel nursing home who was sent to St. Joe’s to help.

When the New Jersey Department of Health realized how dire the situation was at St. Joseph’s, they made a desperate call to CareOne, which runs 32 nursing homes in the state, and asked if they could send anyone to help.

It was a Sunday, Rufo’s day off, but she was only 30 minutes away so she agreed to go, not having any idea at all of what she was getting herself into.

That was back on March 22, during the coronavirus’ opening act in the tristate area, and Rufo had yet to care for any COVID-19 patients.

When she arrived at St. Joseph’s, she didn’t know who was positive and who wasn’t as her team grappled with the home’s paper records and lack of a digital system.

While she admits she was “initially” concerned, she knew “they needed help.”

“It just seemed like the right thing to do,” Rufo said.

Within three days, the state shut down the nursing home and distributed its residents to various CareOne facilities including Holmdel where Rufo has been working ever since to help acclimate them to the new home.

The job has been emotionally and physically draining as the elderly residents grapple with isolation-related depression, loneliness and the inevitable deaths the virus brings — at least five so far at Rufo’s facility.

But to her, they’re “family,” and she does everything she can to “love them” and “take care of them,” Rufo said.

“We have many people working in our facilities, house keepers, office managers, food service, the nurses and the aides, who have all committed to helping people to get better or sharing last moments with their family via Facetime or window visits or keeping in touch as much as we can,” Rufo said.

“It’s been a really difficult time for us as we fight off this disease, many of us… have not seen our children, I haven’t seen my kids in a month except for Facetime because we’ve just dedicated our time now to taking care of these residents.”

Rufo made the decision to have her kids stay with her ex-husband during the crisis once she realized she’d be exposed to the virus at work and broke down into tears as she described the tough choice.

Still, she knows she’s needed more than ever and the light at the end of the tunnel gets brighter each day.

“We’ll all come out of this stronger,” she said.
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