NEWARK, Ohio (AP) — At noon on March 12, two Licking County assisted-living facilities closed their doors to the outside world for the sake of the 225 vulnerable residents within.
They had been preparing for that day for three weeks, enlisting staff members who would be willing to commit to 24/7 service for as long as the COVID-19 period of isolation would last. No one knew how long that would be.
They still don’t.
But life on the inside of The Inn at Chapel Grove in Heath and The Inn at SharonBrooke in Newark continues largely the way it did before, thanks to the 44 staff members who have agreed to live in their workplace — and will continue to do so for the foreseeable future.
Amy Twyman, executive director of Chapel Grove and SharonBrooke, and her staff made detailed plans before the arrival of COVID-19 for how to prevent the virus — which has proven deadlier to older people — from entering their facilities.
Twyman determined that each facility would need 22 staff members present in order to run the building and allow for breaks to eat, sleep and catch up with loved ones.
In addition to the 22, additional staff “on the outside” would have to agree to self-isolate for three weeks and be available to come in for relief.
Twyman knew she was asking for a big-time commitment, but she received it.
″(The staff) all had the opportunity to sign up to do this. They just didn’t know the exact day, but they were all packed and ready,” Twyman said. “So when I made the decision, it happened.”
The buildings’ administrative offices have been turned into sleeping quarters featuring inflatable mattresses; the conference rooms and copier room also have been converted.
“Anywhere that there was a room, we made it a bedroom,” Twyman said.
The facilities also took numerous other steps to ensure the safety of their residents. For example, food is delivered by people wearing masks and gloves. Incoming mail and packages are sprayed with disinfectant and left to sit for a period of time in a designated place outside the building before they’re opened.
And before the lockdown, staff members at the two facilities even pumped 25 gallons of gas into cans for their vehicles so they wouldn’t have to stop at a gas station and risk picking up germs.
“A lot of people, I’m sure, think we’re overreacting, but when you’re in our field and these families have become our family … with me, I have 225 grandparents,” Twyman said. “I’m going to do everything to keep the virus from coming in any of our walls.”
Alisha Disbennett, 29, of Newark, became a nurse because she wanted to help people.
When she heard Chapel Grove was in need of staff members to help during the lockdown, the mother of two boys — Timothy, 9, and Bryson, who will celebrate his first birthday on Saturday — knew she had to follow her calling.
“I never thought in my whole nursing career that this would even happen, but I came to realize that in my entire nursing career, this is the time that they’re going to need me the most,” Disbennett said. “So, of course, I signed up.”
In Disbennett’s absence, Timothy is living with his father while Bryson stays with Disbennett’s fiance, whom she had planned to marry next month.
When she explained to Timothy what she was about to do, Disbennett said, he understood.
“He knows that I’m a nurse. He’s actually bragged to other people about what I’m doing, so he’s pretty proud,” she said.
They haven’t talked much about Bryson’s birthday celebration: “At home, they’re doing cake and gifts for him … but as far as me being here, I’m not really sure,” Disbennett said. “We’re just kind of taking it day by day.”
As the days since the lockdown have rolled into weeks, each facility’s 22 new full-time residents are falling into as much of a pattern as possible, Twyman said.
Staff members take turns in the shower each night — “kind of like living in a dorm,” she said — and have made themselves as comfortable as possible in close quarters.
One night someone brought them food from Raising Cane’s for dinner, and “it was like winning the lottery,” Twyman said, laughing.
In the evenings, during shift change, the staff gathers in the on-site “pub” to catch up and listen to music — a whole new level of “bonding with co-workers.”
“We were sitting last night, talking, and we said we never would have imagined that you would come this close with your staff,” Twyman said.
In their downtime, staff members use their cellphones to video chat with loved ones and catch up on the world beyond their windows.
“One of my cooks at Chapel Grove, her first grandchild was born while she was here, and she got to be on FaceTime with them while the baby was born. She hasn’t gotten a chance to see that baby,” Twyman said.
It’s just one of 44 stories of self-sacrifice.
Miranda Lazar, director of nursing at Chapel Grove, is among the staff members who have taken up residence in her workplace.
“We’re kind of just like a big family, so the residents are as supportive of us as we are of them,” Lazar said. “While we’re checking in on them, they’re asking us, ‘Did you sleep well last night? Did you eat breakfast this morning?’”
Though morale is high, watching families come visit residents through the windows is “a little heartbreaking and heartwarming at the same time,” she said. “You can just see how much they love their family. It’s hard for them to not have those visitors every day.”
Families come and hold signs for residents to see or hang bird feeders to brighten their days. On one resident’s 80th birthday recently, her family decorated her window from the outside and gathered to sing “Happy Birthday.”
While it hasn’t been easy, Twyman said, everyone is making the best of it.
“I think (the residents) feel very safe right now knowing they’re not going to come in contact with anybody,” Twyman said. “They do miss their families, horribly, but they understand that this is what’s best for them.”