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‘I’m afraid it’s going to walk its evil head through that door’: Harford assisted living nurses on frontline of coronavirus pandemic

Brightview Bel Air Senior Living nurse Karen Briggeman.
Brightview Bel Air Senior Living nurse Karen Briggeman. (Matt Button / The Aegis/Baltimore Sun Media)

Nurse Karen Briggeman has been on the frontlines of two wars — one human, the other viral. But the fight against the new coronavirus is nothing like what she, or other Harford County assisted living nurses, have experienced before.

“I never thought I would see this in my lifetime, really,” said Briggeman, who served in the U.S. Army for more than two decades, including in the Gulf War.

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Working as a wellness nurse at Brightview Bel Air — an assisted living community — Briggeman said things have changed.

In the years before the pandemic, she and others started on their tasks as soon as they came into work, administering medication, changing dressings and socializing with the residents, who were free to visit with their families, eat in the dining room, get their hair cut and live a normal life.

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Now, Briggeman said, staff submit to temperature checks and a questionnaire screening for COVID-19 before starting their shifts. Residents are quarantined to their rooms and tended to by nurses in facemasks and gloves. Meals are delivered to their rooms in Styrofoam containers; the dining room is off-limits. Their families cannot visit.

There is nothing typical about it.

But more taxing than the mechanical changes are the emotional ones, Briggeman said. Brightview is home to a dementia unit, housing 25 residents, she said. Explaining the pandemic to them, and other residents, is the hardest — especially so, given their families’ forced distance from them, though the approach has helped the center avoid any confirmed coronavirus cases thus far.

“Especially now during this time, the residents are socially isolated from each other and their families," she said. "We are their family now more so than ever.”

Briggeman became a nurse in 1989, getting her degree through the Army’s nursing program. During the Gulf War, she trained nurses who had been called to active duty from their Army Reserve and National Guard units to fill in for deployed forces, Briggeman said.

She was motivated to become a nurse after seeing them in action. She spent a good deal of time in the hospital for an illness in the 1980s and saw the compassion that the other nurses had for patients, deciding it was the life for her.

With decades of nursing experience under her belt, she understands, now more than ever, residents need that human touch.

It is clear, she said, that some residents are lonely — separated from family, friends and their daily routine. So she and the other nurses at Brightview try to make their days in sequestration more entertaining. They take residents out on walks, she said, brought a musician to entertain the confined seniors, who opened their windows to hear the music from the center’s courtyard and even organized a socially distant car parade of family members for them.

Briggeman effuses about the residents she cares for. She knows the resident whose favorite band is the Carpenters; or the resident who wants her newspaper as soon as she wakes up. She knows what they like, dislike, need and want. But when they ask the critical question “when will this all be over?” she cannot answer with certainty.

Though the steps the center has taken are for the best, Briggeman gets to go home and see her family every day. Those she cares for do not, a fact that runs through her mind and cracks through her amiable tone.

"It’s emotionally taxing [for nurses] because we see how it’s emotionally taxing them,” she said in a breaking voice. “We do the best we can to let them know that they are safe.”

The stress mounts between concerns for her residents and her own family, Briggeman said. She worries about tracking the virus into her own home. And she worries about the havoc it could cause for the residents she has cared for and grown close to.

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“I am scared every day that somewhere, even though we are compliant with going to work and coming right home… I don’t know who the other people live with and what they’re doing,” she said. “Yes, I am afraid, one day, it is going to walk its evil head through that door.”

Across the street from Brightview Bel Air, JoAnn Driver worries about the same thing. As soon as she enters the building, like other staff, she has her temperature checked. As a registered nurse at Brightview Avondell, she is forced to see patients through a face shield and protective gear.

“Every day you are worried,” she said. “We have been diligent here, but every day we worry.”

Avondell, like Brightview, has quarantined residents in their rooms, which is hard for them, Driver said, physically and mentally. The center has a socially distant exercise program, but residents are still showing a decline in mobility.

"We are working very hard to try to get that exercise in from them,” she said.

Brightview Bel Air Senior Living registered nurse Claire Bilski.
Brightview Bel Air Senior Living registered nurse Claire Bilski. (Matt Button / The Aegis/Baltimore Sun Media)

Back at Brightview Bel Air, the same problem occurs, but residents seem to be suffering from acute loneliness, absent their families, resident nurse Claire Bilski said. Some are not eating, she said, and others are feeling poorly from the lack of contact.

The center tries to get each resident into a routine, making sure they see the same people very day and setting a schedule to keep them active and socializing. The dining room is key to that plan, Bilski said; without it, some residents are not eating. It also puts strain on her, as instead of seeing all the residents gathered in one place she has to make the rounds to each individual room to take their temperature and check on them.

“I have to see every single resident in the building, take their temperature, ask them how they are feeling,” she said. “That takes a toll. That takes quite a bit of time.”

Bilski, like the other nurses and attendants who staff the centers, have to carry on their duties with the threat of the novel coronavirus in the back of their minds. Bilski said that, if they were to find the virus as one of the centers, there would be only one explanation for its appearance.

"It would be us bringing it into them, that is the thing,” Bilski said.

Though ties are uncertain, the three said, nursing is a passion — something the three were made to do. Personal concerns melt away at work in view of residents’ needs. It is something, they said, that cannot be taught.

"I have always felt like the patient or the resident is your priority is your concern — it is not about you, it is about them.” Bilski said. "It is something that you just do, even though you have these risks … because you want to make sure this person comes out OK.”

“I couldn’t say that I never worry about it,” Driver added, "but it would never have me second guess my career. I am glad I am here for them.”

"We’re on the frontlines too, just in a different capacity,” Briggeman said. "This is what I was meant to do in life.”

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