First COVID-19 survivor at RCH comes out of isolation with a pep in her step, gives staff glimmer of hope

OLD BRIDGE – Monday was a good day all around at Reformed Church Home.

It was not just any Monday. It was May 11, the day Magdalene Holland, who spent 23 days in isolation after testing positive for COVID-19, took hold of her walker and walked out of isolation back to her apartment at Reformed Church Home (RCH) in Old Bridge. She is RCH’s first COVID-19 patient to come out of isolation.

Holland, who will be 92 in June, told nurse Grace Brunner, who brought a wheelchair for her just in case, “I walked in and I’m going to walk out.”

Brunner had rallied all the staff to cheer on Holland as she walked out.

“This was the first time in eight to nine weeks [of the pandemic] that I saw a glimmer of hope,” Brunner said of bringing Holland out of isolation. “Monday when she walked out, it was completely powerful and very emotional for the staff to see a good outcome. We really need stories like this. My sister-in-law works for a nursing home in North Jersey that has seen several deaths … we have been more fortunate [than other nursing homes] with [people having] lower level symptoms [of the virus].”

Holland walked out to a fanfare of applause, cheers of “woohoos” and “yays,” and balloons. Donning a T-shirt featuring Rosie the Riveter the staff had made for her, and with a sign “I beat COVID-19” proudly placed on her walker, she waved to the staff as she made her way down the long corridor.

A video of her walk out is posted on RCH’s social media website and was sent to her family.

“I laughed … I mean there were tears, but the way she came kind of running out, she built herself for that moment with so much enthusiasm,” daughter Maggie Hundley said of watching her mother in the video.

Hundley, who has not seen her mom in person since the end of February, said she is thankful to see her mother so vibrant.

“At her age isolation could have taken a toll on her mind,” she said.

For Holland’s family, they were fortunate Holland’s bout with COVID-19 was asymptomatic.

“I was not sick,” Holland described. “They take my temperature every morning and one morning it had gone up to 100. I was tested for the virus and was proved positive and I was put in isolation.”

Holland said she wasn’t surprised she tested positive for COVID-19.

“There’s so much [virus] going around and there had to be a reason why my temperature went up,” she said.

Holland said she received excellent care in isolation, which began on April 17. She said the Hallmark Channel, game shows, solitaire on her phone and a lot of prayer got her through the process. She also kept in touch with her family through video chats and text messages, which Hundley said her mom, through time and patience, learned two years ago.

“Everyone looked like strange spacemen who came in to check on me,” Holland said. “I could only tell by their names on their backs. They spoiled me and made sure I ate.”

Holland said she has only been at RCH since September, but said everyone is like family.

“I have a nice view, it is clean and the staff is wonderful,” she said.

Not only did Holland beat COVID-19 on May 11, she welcomed her third great grandchild, a boy. Holland has three children, Hundley, Ken Holland and Gerard Holland; six grandchildren; and now three great grandchildren.

The good news kept on rolling at RCH last week and staff members hope the trend continues. On May 15, RCH released its second resident, 99-year-old Anna Farbanec, from the COVID-19 isolation wing.

Through state and county guidelines, RCH must notify residents, staff and family members whenever a case of COVID-19 is diagnosed in a resident or staff member or there is a person under investigation for suspected illness. Each resident’s emergency contact must be called via phone with the information, followed up in writing.

Hundley said the family receives an email each day and when her mom was in isolation they received multiple emails letting them know what was going on.

Kate Shepard, administrator at RCH, said since the pandemic started it has been a difficult road with the ever-changing guidelines. She said the staff at RCH has rolled up their sleeves to take on the learning curve of challenges.

“There have been a lot of miracles that have happened,” she said.

The facility closed its doors to visitors on March 13, including family members. Only staff, essential medical personnel and essential vendors – such as heating, ventilation and air conditioning system repair – are allowed in the building; all staff are screened daily with temperature checks and screening questions before each shift, which is logged daily for each staff member; and staff are instructed and encouraged to stay home if they have any COVID-19 symptoms at all. Staff with emerging symptoms while at work must be immediately sent home.

RCH, which has 125 residents, stopped taking in new admissions. RCH provides assisted living, rehabilitation, long-term nursing care and respite care.

The sub-acute rehabilitation floor, which is on the third floor, for needed therapy after a hospital stay, has transformed into the COVID-19 wing.

Brunner, an advanced nurse practitioner who has led the charge under the direction of RCH’s Medical Director Edward Mezic, said the COVID-19 wing is divided by plastic barriers. Nurses dress in Tyvek suits and are covered from head to toe in plastic and wear N95 face mask as well as a face shield to check in on patients.

Brunner said she keeps her iPhone in a zipped plastic bag and tries to offer some joy in the midst of isolation throughout the day for patients through FaceTime with their families.

Shepard said the coronavirus is “very elusive.”

“That’s what makes it so scary,” she said.

Over time, Shepard said staff members would note a low grade temperature in a resident one day, and the next day, the resident would feel fine.

“It didn’t make sense with no respiratory issue or symptoms and the resident would test positive,” she said. “[At the time, the symptoms of a low grade temperature] didn’t meet the criteria to test.”

And with limited access to COVID-19 test kits at the beginning of the pandemic, Shepard said it made it hard to set a criteria on who to test and who to not test. But after enough baseline data, Shepard said low grade temperatures are now a means to test for the virus.

Shepard said RCH became more aggressive with their testing after a couple tested positive at the end of March in assisted living. The couple had been sent to the hospital for treatment.

A resident who tests positive at RCH needs to test negative with two consecutive tests before coming out of isolation. Brunner said the facility uses two different laboratories, Aculabs in East Brunswick and Capstone in Atlanta, and test results come back within 24-72 hours.

Commissioner Judith M. Persichilli of the New Jersey State Department of Health handed down another guideline for long-term care facilities last week to test every resident and staff for COVID-19 by May 26. Shepard said tests kits are now more readily available and they are working to meet the guideline.

Shepard said some staff members who have tested positive at RCH were shocked.

“We have had a lot of people asymptomatic [to the virus],” she said. “We have had staff members say three days later in their time of quarantine they felt cold symptoms, but at the time of testing they felt fine. … We are blessed to have caught [the cases] early, but it has been a very elusive process.”

Shepard said because of the elusiveness of the virus they continue to refine infection control at RCH with personal protective equipment and making sure staff and residents wash their hands.

Communal dining has been discontinued and all meals must be delivered to the resident’s room.

RCH’s activities department continues to find creative ways to engage residents, such as personal visits; visits from RCH’s two foster dogs from Husky House in Matawan; and the use of the home’s live-feed camera to broadcast spiritual services, exercise and other events from the multipurpose room to residents’ in-room televisions.

Activities staff members assist residents with calls via Skype and FaceTime to stay connected with family members, who can make an appointment through phone or email.

Updates on COVID-19 are provided at the Reformed Church Home website, reformedchurchhome.com. In early April, RCH initiated an Employee Appreciation Fund to allow the coordination of deliveries and donations for staff members around the clock. For more information contact Paula LeBlanc, director of Development at 732-607-9230 ext. 108.

Contact Kathy Chang at kchang@newspapermediagroup.com.