By LISA EISENHAUER
Susan McCrary, president and chief executive of St. Ignatius Nursing & Rehab Center in Philadelphia, recounts the day in spring 2020 when she "kind of lost it," breaking into tears as the body of a resident was being wheeled away. The resident was one of several on the same floor to die of COVID-19 within days of each other early in the pandemic.
Karin D. Purcell, St. Ignatius' director of development, recalls her frenzied search for personal protective equipment for the staff and the cloak-and-dagger tactics involved in picking up a donation of masks so as not to call attention to the source of the scarce supplies. "I remember driving back here," she says. "It was like having gold in the car."
Steve Annable, nutrition manager, relates the frustration of having to work remotely so he wouldn't risk exposing others, especially the facility's frail residents, when he had COVID-like symptoms but no access to a test for the virus. "It's more than just a job," he explains. "We are their family."
Those reflections are among many captured in "Our COVID Journey," a 15-minute documentary that St. Ignatius produced and released in late December.
The video was the idea of Sr. Patricia Talone, RSM, who chairs the board of the nursing home. Sr. Talone retired from CHA in 2016 as the association's vice president of mission services. St. Ignatius has been in operation in West Philadelphia since 1952, when a parish priest founded it to care for the neighborhood's low-income elderly.
The voices on the ground
Today, the majority of St. Ignatius' residents rely dually on Medicare and Medicaid. Most are African Americans from the surrounding working-class neighborhood.
When the pandemic started, many of St. Ignatius' patients, like the frail elders in nursing homes everywhere, were especially vulnerable. Protocols for containing the virus weren't established and protective gear was elusive. The Kaiser Family Foundation reports that staff and residents at long-term care facilities accounted for 31% of all COVID deaths in the nation through June 30, 2021.
Once St. Ignatius closed its doors to everyone except staff and residents, Sr. Talone couldn't visit, but she stayed in close touch with staff who told her about the challenges they faced in trying to keep the virus at bay and the isolated residents healthy and happy.
"I felt for historic reasons and archival reasons we needed to capture the voices of people on the ground," she says.
Helen Graves, a resident of St. Ignatius Nursing & Rehab Center in Philadelphia, visits with her family virtually in a scene from "Our COVID Journey," a documentary the facility made to share the challenges its workers have faced during the pandemic.
St. Ignatius hired RiseArt Media, a video company the facility had worked with in the past, for the documentary. The first interviews with staff began as the pandemic appeared to be waning in summer 2020. That might have been the end of taping, had the virus not continued its march. The videographer returned to St. Ignatius in August 2021, as COVID variants continued to create surges, to add a more updated segment to the film.
"It took us a really, really long time to finish and part of that was because each time we began moving on it COVID itself changed and morphed and it was like, OK, how do we capture this?" Sr. Talone says.
Pandemic and protests
She credits Purcell for moving the project forward by connecting the videographer and the staff. Purcell hopes the film conveys the compassion she witnessed from workers who set aside their own fears to care for St. Ignatius' residents. "It was unbelievably heroic to me," she says.
Plexiglass separates resident Ruth Wilson and her daughter Rashera Wilson as they visit in the solarium at St. Ignatius Nursing & Rehab Center in Philadelphia. The photo is part of the film "Our COVID Journey" that was produced by the facility to capture the experience of staff during the pandemic.
Even with all the emotional and gut-wrenching interviews the video packs in, it doesn't capture all that the pandemic wrought at St. Ignatius. For example, the facility is licensed for 176 beds and in pre-COVID days normally had a census of about 140. That number was below 100 at the end of the year, a drop that Sr. Talone and Purcell say is due to the pandemic, with many potential residents worried about exposure to the virus and isolation from loved ones as well as many more people working from home and able to care for elderly family members, and due to staffing constraints. Full-time staff now number about 140; before COVID that figure was about 250.
Purcell notes that the movie also doesn't convey the entire scope of the pressure that St. Ignatius staff has been under over the last two years, not all of it from COVID. She points out that in summer 2020 buildings just blocks from the nursing home burned as racial justice protests turned violent. The facility was at times locked down because of the unrest.
St. Ignatius has to date had 67 cases of COVID among residents and lost 22 residents to the virus. The last death was in May 2020. St. Ignatius reported no new cases of the virus among residents from March 2021 until early this year, when it had seven new cases.
"I feel that we have put things in place very rapidly for patient safety that can now be a model for the future," Sr. Talone says. "I don't think we're over the hump yet, but at least we sort of know how to handle it."
Purcell is hopeful that the pandemic's darkest days are past, too, although as 2021 was winding down more of her friends and acquaintances were battling COVID than at any time since the start.
In the latter part of the film, Scot Weirich, St. Ignatius' director of human resources, expresses guarded optimism.
"I think we have a long way to go," Weirich says. "I think we'll be forever changed, but we're getting back to normalcy, whatever the new normalcy might be."
"Our COVID Journey" can be viewed on YouTube at youtu.be/62poomN-5M0.