By Star-Ledger Guest Columnist
By Toya Cornelious
Days after winter turned into spring this March, we received a call that changed our lives.
The urgent request came from the New Jersey Department of Health asking CareOne, my employer, to provide urgent support and resources for a deteriorating situation at St. Joseph’s Seniors Home-Nursing Center and Assisted Living in Woodbridge.
The facility had been overrun with COVID-19 and was barely hanging on. The coronavirus had spread like wildfire infecting the staff, primarily comprised of nuns, along with many residents. More than 80 residents were depending on just a few dedicated nuns for their care.
They were some of our most vulnerable members of our society, and we could not in good conscience turn our backs on them.
They desperately needed help. Our help.
When we arrived the situation at St. Joseph’s was dire. The nuns, almost all of whom were ill with COVID-19, were working around the clock. Many of the residents had the virus but we didn’t know who because, despite the nun’s best efforts, direct care had taken priority over updating the paper records at St. Joseph’s. As the state advised us, they (and we along with them) had no choice but to assume that all the residents were positive.
What followed was nothing short of extraordinary courage by our staff. Despite the shock and collapse of anything remotely resembling primary care, we quickly supported the sisters to provide relief and triaged the situation.
The Department of Health issued an Emergency Order closing St. Joseph’s and directed the evacuation of the residents to one of our CareOne facilities. This required a herculean effort to coordinate the logistics including first relocating residents from CareOne at Hanover in Whippany to other CareOne facilities. In less than 72 hours after the Department of Health call, 79 residents from St. Joseph’s were transferred by the Office of Emergency Management, state police, and our staff to our Hanover facility.
Along with my team, we followed CDC and Health Department guidelines to maintain a safe environment and protect our patients and staff. Equally important, we ensured that the residents were treated with dignity and kept comfortable.
I was personally on-site to greet each resident as they arrived at the Hanover facility. One family stood in the distance and upon speaking with them, they indicated that their loved one was being transferred from St. Joseph’s and they hadn’t been able to visit with her due to the pandemic. Albeit a brief interaction, the family was able to see their loved one and tell her how much they loved her.
Many of the residents were in declining health and were hospice appropriate upon arriving into CareOne’s care. Our staff assessed each resident and developed a plan of care based on their medical status and the families’ goals of care. These residents became our family. It was difficult and demanding, physically and emotionally, but our dedication and resolve never faltered. If anything, it grew stronger.
Recently, CareOne transferred back scores of the former COVID-19-positive residents to St. Joseph’s, fully recovered. Our staff and nurses made these recoveries possible. I know them to be among the best-trained and prepared in the country and I believe without their actions and sacrifice many more lives would have been lost.
It has also been quite emotionally and psychologically draining to witness the decline of those that I’ve come to know and love. People I’ve bonded with, called friends and cared for as family over time have been lost fighting this virus…and I grieve, we all do.
I am not alone. Fighting this pandemic has taken its toll across the healthcare industry in so many ways. Nearly 600 of them; nurses, caregivers, doctors, paramedics and other essential staff have died from this insidious disease.
I recently tested positive for the virus. Having lost a dear friend to COVID-19, I was intimately aware of how devastating it could be, but I wasn’t overly concerned for my own welfare. The scariest moment was knowing that my husband and young daughters had been exposed and were symptomatic. Thankfully, we have all recovered physically. The rest will take time.
I am hopeful that we finally have the upper hand in this fight and the worst has passed. Now, with change ahead of us again with spring approaching summer, I hope we can turn toward a more optimistic season.
Toya Cornelious is chief clinical officer at CareOne Management for all of those who helped at CareOne at Hanover Township. She’s also a C.A.R.E.S. award winner.