Losing a mother to COVID-19 in a nursing home

Essay and photos by Karla Tipton

The coronavirus arrived on U.S. shores in January. I watched the news reports of infections in Washington nursing homes with a sense of dread.

The coronavirus was coming for my mom. 

She had gone into a long-term care facility in Summit County in December, after an extended hospital stay rife with complications, infections and dangerous reactions to the drugs keeping her alive.

While she had regained some semblance of health, she wasn’t well enough to come home. Now this virus had come to Ohio.

I worried COVID-19 would get into her facility, and it did. I feared my mom would be infected, and she was. 

My mom, Donna Tipton, 82, died in a nursing home from complications of COVID-19. Several months earlier, she had requested no extraordinary measures be taken to keep her alive, if the worst happened.

The worst happened. 

Only lately have I crawled from the dark shell of my grief and wonder how I lost the last 6 months.

Darkness first descended when Gov. DeWine closed nursing homes and assisted living centers to visitors on March 10 to keep vulnerable residents safe. As the months wore on, this lockdown exacted an unbearable toll on our family.

My mom’s words from before the pandemic, when I could still visit her, haunted me: “When can I go home? Will I be here for the rest of my life?”

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I would evade the question. “Keep working at physical therapy and you’ll get strong and be able to walk again.” That frequent untruth, spoken in a fake optimistic voice, wracked me with guilt. 

Then, at the drop of a government order, my mom’s daily life became shrouded from us. 

No longer could we advocate for her in person, like when my sister demanded the staff move my mom away from the aide who had left her bruised and scared when she had lifted her back into her bed. Or when the TV’s closed captioning stopped working and I tracked down the facility’s tech guy to fix it.

During a call after the governor’s announcement, my mom said, “I saw the governor. He’s talking silly. He’s shutting everything down. No one can come in here. This is bad. It’s like he’s saying goodbye.”

I told her, “As long as they don’t let the virus get into where you are, you won’t get it. You’re safe.” 

Naively, I believed that strict precautions were being taken at the facility. Yet I felt an underlying dread. 

Barred from entering the long-term care facility, we visited my mom at the window of her room.

More than 2,500 nursing home residents statewide have died from coronavirus or complications from it, and comprise 68% of all COVID-19 related deaths in Ohio.  Elaine Ryan, AARP’s vice president of state advocacy and strategy integration, is fighting for transparency in nursing homes during the pandemic: “More needs to be done to protect those residents,” she said in a TV interview in April. “Call the facility. Ask if they have COVID-19. You ask for a daily visit. Telephone call, FaceTime, something with the loved one in that facility. And you ask them what is their plan to keep you continually informed about what’s going on in those facilities.”

But nothing can replace being there, holding your loved one’s hand, offering encouraging words, showing that you care by showing up. 

In late March, my mom developed a small cough, which transitioned into a worse one. 

I called every day for a status update. What I got from the nurse on duty was, “she’s a little better” or “she’s a little worse.”

During phone calls, my mom’s limited hearing worsened. She couldn’t speak without getting out of breath and coughing.

Fluid built up in her lungs, and she was too weak to cough it up. The nurse practitioner called me with an update: the doctor assigned to the facility had ordered a lung x-ray. I fired off questions. “Did the x-ray show anything? Did you test her for flu? Have you done a COVID-19 test?”

“We’ve got her on an antibiotic,” said the nurse practitioner.

I asked, “So it’s pneumonia?”

She said, “That’s what they’re treating her as. The concern is she has something viral going on also. The influenza tests were negative, so we’re going to do a respiratory viral panel on her just to make sure she doesn’t have RSV, Respiratory Syncytial Virus.”

I pressed, “But not a COVID test?”

“If this test comes back negative and she continues to decline, then we can do the COVID test.”

She had been sick nearly three weeks with lingering COVID-like symptoms. To the medical staff, it looked like a virus. Yet still no COVID-19 test? This flummoxed me. 

“You haven’t had any incidence of the coronavirus in the facility, right?”

She said, “No patients. Right.”

She didn’t say that an employee had tested positive. Later, we learned that was the case.

Then she said, “Have you considered putting her on the hospice program? She would receive more focused care. If she is on hospice, then you would be able to visit her,” she said.

A surreal photographic effect through the window creates a pastoral halo around Donna.

This implication sank in. I called the social worker, who had shown much compassion for my mom and for our family. She arranged for a visit.

On April 7, when I arrived at the reception area, I had my temperature taken. An aide escorted me through a labyrinth of corridors, and through a zippered plastic tarp, into the isolated respiratory hallway. It felt like a sci-fi movie.

An aide gave me a gown, mask and gloves and took me to my mom’s room. 

My mom looked frail, and almost asleep. The TV was blaring. She saw me and lit up, smiling. I smiled back. It felt so good to see her.

Her hearing had gotten so poor, she couldn’t hear a word. Her hearing aids were dead. No one had put them in the charger. To communicate, I had to take my mask off so she could read my lips, but that degenerated into writing notes. She couldn’t hear me, but talked to me nonstop. She kept saying how good it was to see me.

I held her hand. I touched her forehead. I leaned close. I stayed about an hour and a half. The next day, my sister visited.

It was scary being in there, wrapped up in PPE.

When I came home, I immediately took a shower. I was traumatized, but didn’t know it.

As it turns out, the universe hadn’t yet finished with me. A tornado — an actual tornado — tore through our backyard at midnight. The siren scared me to shelter in the basement.

I had spent my childhood in that yard, among those trees. In a few minutes, half of it was gone, leaving a giant hole in the wooded yardscape, and a clear view of the destroyed neighbor’s garage.

It wasn’t until morning that I saw the damage. Our structures did not catch the brunt of it, but my psyche took a blow.

If there ever was a demarcation point between the “Before Pandemic” and after, it was April 8.

In the next two weeks, my mom’s symptoms improved. The cough went away. They moved her into a new room that wasn’t in the isolation ward. Within a couple of days, she went from not being able to hear a thing I said on the phone, to being able to carry on a conversation. 

Eventually, hearing loss was added to the growing list of COVID symptoms.

Our calls improved, filled with less frustration and more connection. 

Then the other shoe dropped.

“They tested all the residents, and your mom tested positive for the virus. She’s asymptomatic,” said the social worker over the phone.

The breath went out of me. “Do you think the pneumonia she had was really COVID? They told me she tested negative for flu, and could never pin down what it was.”

There was a long silence. “That very well could be.”

Once more, we were banned from entering the facility. Fortunately, her new room had a window accessible to us, so we could visit her that way.

This time, my mom stayed in her room, and the COVID unit grew around her, since about a quarter of the residents had tested positive, but were asymptomatic.

The first half of 2020 will go down in history for being a string of unmarked holidays, birthdays, graduations, anniversaries.

Karla takes a selfie with her mom Donna. Family members are sometimes permitted to visit patients under hospice care.

And Mother’s Day, yet another holiday that would pass without our usual festivities, loomed before us.

I wanted to make it as special as possible for her. She loved flowers, and the big arrangement I sent was from all of us, including Tagger, the cat she loved and missed.

The day the flowers were delivered, I visited her through the window. She looked great. She was fully dressed and sitting in the recliner, the vase of flowers nearby. The window had been cracked open an inch, and she waved at me. She pointed to the flowers and said, “They smell so nice! They are beautiful.”

The aide talked to me through the screen. “She’s bragged on those flowers to everyone who has come into her room.”

Before I left, my mom said to me, “Next time you come, can you bring my walker? I want to try to walk.” 

That night, I dreamed that Mom walked a few steps without the walker. It was a good dream.

The next day — the day before Mother’s Day — a nurse called. “Your mother had a bout of myoclonus that caused her arms to shake and shoulders to contract. I was with her the whole time. She was just sitting there, looking right at me, like, ‘When’s this going to stop?'” 

Myoclonus is a neurological condition causing tremors that sometimes presents in the elderly. Mom had experienced hand tremors occasionally, but it had never been this pronounced. My mom was put to bed where she went to sleep. That was the last time her lovely hazel eyes saw the world.

On Sunday, I met my sister, Darla, and her husband, Tim, at the window. We stood there, watching helplessly as she struggled to breathe, unconscious, unaware we were there. We repeated, “We love you” and “Happy Mother’s Day” through the screen, hoping she would hear us and wake up.

The next seven days merged into an excruciating blur.

Each evening, I would pick up my sister after I finished telework, and we would go to the window. The staff had moved her bed, so we could be as close to her as possible. My mom’s condition did not change, as she lay there in the same position, mouth open, gasping.

The Ohio spring did not take our comfort into consideration, and we stood there, day after day, enduring rain, heat, wind and cold. 

A nurse saw us at the window one day. He filled us in on my mom’s unchanged status, then offered to take the screen off the window and let us crawl in. “I’ve done it for other families.”

“This coronavirus is not as bad as the media makes it out to be.” He took down his N95 mask to talk to us.

Darla’s eyes got wide. She adjusted her own N95 mask. She had recently had surgery, and after spending several weeks in the hospital, was herself immuno-compromised. The possibility of getting the virus terrified her. It seemed clear to us that our mother had COVID-19.

I told him, “No, I don’t think so. My sister is scared.” I pointed to my mom, who was only six feet away through the glass. “We are pretty close.”

The nurse went away, then came back shortly. He said he would let us in through the back door, that he had gotten permission from his administrator. He would give us PPE. 

He said, “I know I’d want to be there if it was my mother, father, sister or brother.” 

My sister stared at me. Again, I told him ‘no’. “Our mom is dying of coronavirus. She wouldn’t want us catching it, too.” Darla released a breath. 

The days crawled by, the scene always the same. It was surreal, staring at our motionless mom through a window that reflected the trees and grass and clouds behind us, appearing as a halo around her, as if she was already in heaven. 

“I wonder if she’s dreaming,” I said to Darla. 

“I think she’s already gone,” she replied.

Every time we left, I said goodbye to Mom and blew her a kiss, wondering if it was the last time. 

At last, it was. The call came in after midnight. 

For the last months of my mom’s life, she had been alone, cut off from those who cared most for her. Chances are, she died alone, without even a nurse there. It hurt to think of it.

And then, wrongly, horribly and unfairly, we were denied a funeral. Visitation at the funeral home was disallowed for those with a coronavirus diagnosis.

There would be no solace for our aching hearts provided by our extended family and friends. Nor would there be hugs from those who loved our mother as we had.

My mom was buried with only cemetery workers present. We decided against a graveside service, since only three of us could be there. At the height of the pandemic, none of our relations or friends would attend, erring on the side of caution.

We didn’t want anyone else to go through this hell.

We carried flowers to her gravesite that afternoon. It was another holiday, Memorial Day, but this time we marked it.

I keep remembering the last time I was allowed to be near my mother, sitting close, holding her hand, smoothing her hair, as I sat wrapped in PPE, an annoying veneer of paper and latex standing between us.

I cling to the memory because it was the last time I would ever experience her physical contact. It was the last time I was graced with her mother’s spirit, as snug around me as one of her hand-crocheted afghans, and the last time her presence engulfed me, a smile on her face, and her eyes taking me in, filled with love.

A native of Barberton, Karla Tipton earned a bachelor’s degree in journalism from Kent State University and spent 14 years as a staff reporter and editor at the Antelope Valley Press in California before returning home. She is the author of two time travel romantic fantasy novels. She keeps busy writing, working in the IT field, playing rock guitar, photographing urban settings and enjoying the local arts and music scene.