Face to Face with a Monster

Front line assisted living workers from Cherry Springs Village share their experiences from COVID-19 fight

Helpless.
Frightened.
Heavy.
Hopeful.

Workers at Cherry Springs Village Assisted Living will tell you they are battling a monster. Their armor is made of paper gowns and rubber gloves, with layers of masks and face shields hiding all but their worried, tired expressions. They have worked long, hard hours. They have seen pain and fear in the eyes of the elderly residents they are charged to care for. They have heard the sting and sorrow of separation in the voices of family members. They have seen tears flood the cheeks of their coworkers and felt their own stomachs twist with knots of worry.

They have seen death and felt loss – but continue to suit up, clock in and care for the residents who are beginning to emerge from their fight against COVID-19.

Jody Bracket

“I don’t think you can prepare yourself mentally, physically, anything for what we’re going through,” said Jody Bracket, life enrichment coordinator currently working at Cherry Springs. “It’s heartbreaking. It’s been hard. There have been days I’ve wanted to just run home and hold my kids and not do it anymore. But I just think, ‘What would I want someone to do if it was my family in here, my loved one?’ So I just keep coming back and doing the best I can to care for these residents.” 

The caregivers at Cherry Springs – personal care aides, certified nursing assistants, medication technicians, life enrichment coordinators, housekeeping teams, dietary and kitchen teams, administrative teams – have faced things they never expected to face in their careers or even their lifetimes. 

Austin Bridges, a medication technician, never expected to witness death at such a close range when he volunteered to help out at Cherry Springs temporarily. He described watching one resident pass right in front of him, and having to help put another in a body bag.  

“It’s definitely something I never experienced in my career before,” Bridges said. “The atmosphere is heavy.”

Another medication technician, Ebony Robinson,  fought back tears as she described how quickly the health of residents could change. 

“It’s been really hard, just coming into work not knowing if you’re going to leave that day with everybody that you’ve been working with this long, just not knowing if they are going to be alive that day or if they are going to die – that’s been the hardest thing,” Robinson, who has worked at the community for 6 years, said. “You feel helpless, you want to help them so much, but there’s nothing you can do other than care for them.”

Ebony Robinson

Robinson said she has tried to maintain as much positivity as possible, especially when interacting with residents. She considers them part of her family, she said, and each loss feels as painful as the loss of a loved one. 

” I just keeping coming into work, trying to keep pushing forward, and for the residents who are still with us, work to make their life as much as I can better every day,” Robinson said. “I try to stay with them a little longer, have conversations that aren’t about this virus, just keep their minds off of it as best as I can.”

Positivity has been difficult to muster at times, staff said, and they have cried on each other’s shoulders many times. But it is something they have all strived for – maintaining a positive outlook and encouraging residents to keep fighting this monster. 

“The last few weeks have been a roller coaster for me, I’ve never experienced anything like this,” said Sierra Bleakley, a personal care aide at Cherry Springs. “It’s been hard to see the residents go that have gone, but I’ve just tried to stay positive and stay strong for my residents and coworkers. We can’t let them see us give up or see us have a hard time – we have to stay positive so they can stay positive and fight this.”

The Hendersonville, N.C., assisted living community reported 23 positive COVID-19 cases on April 5. Infection-control measures, including screening employees before shifts, hand-washing and sanitization, and use of personal protective equipment, have been in place since March, company officials said, and have strengthened as the situation evolved. 

The daily lives for these front line workers have changed drastically over the course of April. They work through sweat and tears under layers and layers of masks and  other protective equipment. The additional steps to suit up add extra time to their shifts, and working with the often bulky gear can make it “hard to breathe.” 

“It’s like a Sci-Fi film in here,” said Jennifer Gugliuzza, a medication technician at the community. “Everybody is wearing these gowns and masks and face shields. I imagine it’s scary for the residents. And I’m having a hard time today, working and breathing with all of this PPE, but I know it’s necessary and I understand why we need it.”

Gugliuzza understands more than most why that PPE is so important – she tested positive for COVID-19 at the beginning of April and only just returned to work after being clear of symptoms and fever for more than two weeks. She described having high fever, nausea and respiratory systems in her personal fight with COVID-19. 

“When I was at home and I was at the worst point I was at this, I was scared,” Gugliuzza said. “I just thought, I can’t even imagine what these residents are feeling like, because I’m relatively healthy. I just couldn’t imagine what they were going through.”

Cherry Springs’ battle with COVID-19 has made for several long, hard weeks for both residents and staff at the assisted living community. Teams there describe the virus as “a monster” that has left its unrelenting mark on them, as caregivers and personally. Many say they have changed through this experience, and will no longer take for granted the little things in life. 

“It has definitely made me appreciate the little things in life,” Brackett said. “I won’t take those for granted anymore.”

Cherry Springs Village has reported a total of 48 positive resident cases, 17 positive staff cases, and 10 losses, but for the teams working on the front lines at this community, the battle has nothing to do with the numbers – its about the people affected by this monster. 

At Cherry Springs now, residents are healing and becoming more active, and the de-isolation process is beginning. For those on the front lines fighting COVID-19 at this community, the darkness is beginning to fade and light is returning for both residents and staff.

Spring Neal stands with a resident as they watch representatives from the Henderson County Health Department carry a banner of support around the outside of the building.

“The most rewarding thing is seeing these residents’ faces light up when they are out in the hallways communicating with each other again, they’re dancing in the halls, they’re coming back to life,” said Spring Neal, area operations director who has been leading the team at Cherry Springs Village throughout this situation. “We could not have been as successful as we have been through this without all of the community support and our home office support. We couldn’t have done it without everybody coming together as a team. “

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