Registered nurse Jason Wagner said word of mouth first drew him to Shuksan Healthcare Center nearly 5½ years ago when he was a certified nursing assistant.
“People said they had a laid-back atmosphere and they allowed animals in the facility,” Wagner told The Bellingham Herald. “I’m a lover of animals, and it just seemed like the place I wanted to be. The vibe was more homelike than other facilities I worked. The residents felt like they were home, and the entire place had less of a hospital feel to it.”
That family atmosphere, along with not being required to wear scrubs to work in favor of shorts and a T-shirt, is what hooked fellow resident nurse Ryan Beeson nearly nine years ago.
“I call my residents ‘my folks,’” Beeson told The Herald. “They are my family — I spend more time with them than I do my family. That’s what the atmosphere is at Shuksan. We’re a family.”
But over the past month and a half, that Shuksan family has been tested and faced turmoil the likes of which the Hatfields wouldn’t have wished on the McCoys.
It was on March 22 that the Whatcom County Health Department first announced an outbreak of COVID-19 at the Bellingham nursing home.
“At that point, it became real,” Wagner said. “Up until that point, we saw it on television, and it was scary. We knew what happened at the facility in Kirkland, but I had extreme hope it wasn’t going to spread like that here.”
Constant grieving state
Unfortunately, it did just that.
At the time the health department announced the outbreak, there were 29 coronavirus cases at Shuksan — 23 residents and six employees. But those numbers continued to grow, swelling to 54 — 31 residents and 23 employees.
And as bad as those statistics were, they weren’t the ones that really hurt the Shuksan family most.
On March 25, a woman in her 90s died, becoming the first Shuksan resident who had tested positive for COVID-19 to die. A day later, the health department reported that two male Shuksan residents in their 90s diagnosed with coronavirus had died.
In all, 10 Shuksan residents — 10 family members — who tested positive while at Shuksan ended up dying, the most recent on April 11. Each loss was like a dagger to the heart. An 11th resident died 10 days after being released from the facility, and a test came back a day later positive for COVID-19.
“I lost seven people that I cared for dearly in a matter of three weeks,” Beeson said. “Normally, we might lose that many in two to three years, and this was in three weeks and just one hall.
“Nobody was able to have a funeral. It was almost like we were in a constant grieving state.”
An honor and a challenge
Like any good family, Beeson and Wagner said Shuksan staff and residents came together in the time of need — supporting each other through the crisis.
“To me, it’s something we just jumped into,” Wagner told The Herald. “We wanted to provide our residents high-level care while still trying to be conscious of their feelings and emotions. We wanted to be in the room with them as much as we could and let them know why their family members couldn’t come and visit. We needed to provide some level of assurance and comfort and let them know that at that moment they were safe.”
Keeping residents’ spirits up was key to helping them fight the respiratory illness, Beeson said, while at the same time Shuksan’s staff needed to remain positive and hopeful even as they watched people they cared about — people they considered family — struggling to survive.
Some residents even needed to be reminded to eat to keep their strength up to fight off the deadly effects of the virus. Residents with dementia had to be reminded to cough to try to keep their lungs clear.
“We’d seen the flu come through before, but we’ve never seen people die like this,” Beeson said. “Keeping everybody’s morale up was tough, but we needed to so they could keep fighting.”
Keeping families, who were prevented from being with loved ones for the sake of their own safety, updated also became a big part of the nurses’ duties, Beeson said. Often, staff helped residents use FaceTime or other forms of video communication to stay connected with their loved ones.
They also had the responsibility to keep families in the loop with what was going on inside the walls at Shuksan.
“Telling those sons and daughters what was going on with their loved ones, it was really tough,” Wagner said. “It was heartbreaking.”
And with those families — people who before coronavirus arrived were part of the family at the facility and around much of the time — prohibited from being with residents, Wagner said it was up to the staff to love and care for the residents as they battled COVID-19.
In a sense, the staff became the only family support system residents could actually see in person.
“I see my mom and my dad in each person I care for,” Wagner said. “It was so hard to watch these people going through this, but it was such and honor to be there for them and care for them when they needed it most.”
Closer to home
As close as the Shuksan staff is to the residents at Shuksan, for 23 staff members the battle hit even closer to home.
Beeson said he was one of the staff members who tested positive for COVID-19.
“I had mild symptoms. When it first came — I thought it was just allergies,” he said. “Increased cough, congestion, headache, fatigue. When I had fatigue in my mind, that’s when I realized it was something else.
“I didn’t want to test and then quarantine, because I knew that meant I couldn’t go to work and take care of my folks — those are my people. I may not get to see them again if I couldn’t get back to work, but I knew I needed to. I took the test, and I tested positive. I knew I would — when you see so many people in one place get it, you just know.”
Once he had fully recovered at home, Beeson said he had no reservations about returning to care for his residents.
“You just live to work in a different normal,” Beeson said.
Wagner, meanwhile, said his wife tested positive for COVID-19, got pneumonia and was hospitalized.
She has since come home and is doing much better, Wagner said, but he understands first-hand what his resident’s families went through not being able to spend time with loved ones fighting for their lives.
“It was really difficult for me not to be able to visit her in the hospital,” Wagner said. “It was stressful not to be there for her. .... That’s one of the most difficult things about this disease is the isolation it creates and the social distancing that’s required.”
Though it may have felt like it sometimes, Beeson and Wagner both said they knew they were never alone. It wasn’t just the staff and residents at Shuksan taking on the pandemic — it was the entire community.
Not only did they have other staff members to lean on when things got tough, but both said the Whatcom County community stepped up to help where they could and showed the Shuksan staff how much their efforts were appreciated.
Other healthcare workers stepped in to spell Shuksan staff members who had to stay home while they recovered from the disease, and PeaceHealth sent meals to the facility.
But the generosity didn’t stop there, Beeson said.
“The outpouring from the community has been amazing,” Beeson told The Herald. “We’ve have people donating PPE, making robes and masks and donating food. It’s a huge thing. It blew my mind away that complete strangers would do that for us.”
And it hasn’t been just donations that have caught the staff’s eyes.
Throughout the York neighborhood where the facility is located, signs have popped up in support of the staff and residents at Shuksan.
Wagner said those signs have even been placed on the front lawn at Shuksan.
“I get choked up when I think about it — it’s heartwarming,” Wagner said. “It’s so nice to know you are appreciated. I know the staff sees those signs, and the residents know they’re there, too. The community knows what we have been through is difficult.”
While it is that type of community support that makes things easier, Beeson and Wagner both said what really makes the past month and a half rewarding are the success stories — the residents who emerged from the grips of the virus.
“I’ve lost a lot of people,” Beeson said. “But then you have those where you don’t think they’re going to pull through, and they have that 100% turnaround and are doing fabulous. They have this glow to them. You go in the room, and they’re smiling and they know they didn’t die from this awful virus.
“Everybody who gets this is different — everybody has got their own story. ... When they come back from it, though, you can see they have a new pep in their step — they’re ready to rock and roll.”
Wagner said a moment that stood out for him during the ordeal was watching a resident who tested positive be able to sit outside in a chair in the courtyard at Shuksan and eat lunch in the sunshine.
“It brought a tear to my eye,” Wagner said.
Those are the special moments for the Shuksan family — the success stories.
“Being able to beat this and get through this challenge and see somebody make it, it makes you feel validated for all the work you’ve done,” Wagner said.
Shuksan’s work is far from done, though — if anything, it’s just beginning.
The facility announced on April 22 that it will begin accepting new residents who have previously tested positive for COVID-19. It will be one of three coronavirus isolation facilities the state is planning to use.
So far, Shuksan has admitted four coronavirus-positive patients, one of whom died Monday, April 27.
Beeson and Wagner both said they have total confidence in the facility to handle whatever comes next during the pandemic.
“This wasn’t any staff members’ fault — I think that’s a common misconception,” Wagner said. “I want everyone to know the staff went above and beyond and worked tirelessly under conditions most people couldn’t understand or wouldn’t put themselves in. I didn’t see anybody making this about themselves — this staff was very selfless and we all worked to serve our residents.”
Wagner said the facility’s nursing director and administration were extremely supportive during the ordeal and gave guidance and resources necessary to provide high-quality nursing care to residents.
He said they also provided reassurance and kept the staff informed of the ever-changing guidelines and regulations as the health department and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention learned more about the disease.
“Everybody did their best to provide quality healthcare to our residents,” Wagner said. “The residents that passed, hopefully they felt like family was there with them. For the ones that have recuperated, the joy all the staff felt for that can’t be measured.
“I want the community to how far we all came, and together, we feel like we are prevailing. ... Team Shuksan really pulled through.”
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This story was originally published May 03, 2020 5:00 AM.