Voices from the Pandemic: Bruce MacGillis

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As told to Eli Saslow, The Washington Post, December 5, 2020

Bruce MacGillis

‘Do people understand what’s happening here? Do they care?’

Bruce MacGillis, on the excruciating wait for a vaccine inside a coronavirus-infected nursing home

I’m happy they put us at the top of the list, but I doubt it’s going to make much of a difference in here. Can I get the vaccine today? Will I have immunity by tomorrow? ‘Cause that’s the kind of timeline we need in this nursing home. More than half of this place is covid-positive. I’m one of about 80 residents, and 30 got sick this week.

The first thing I do when I wake up is look down the hallway for the big plastic sheet. That’s what they use to block off the covid area. They sectioned off a whole wing a few days before Thanksgiving. Then they blocked another hallway earlier this week. That plastic sheet keeps moving closer. I’m trying not to panic, but where am I supposed to go? It’s not like I can jump up and make a run for it. I’m in a wheelchair. I haven’t been outside for months. I’m trapped, just like everybody else in this place. We’re at the mercy of this virus. We sit in here and we wait.

That’s been the story of the last nine months. It’s boredom and then dread. They stopped allowing visitors in March, so we lost that contact with the outside world. Then it was no more group meals in the cafeteria — just eat everything alone in your room. No more trips to physical therapy. No more access to the lounge or computer area. My world keeps getting smaller. I have my little room. I have my old nine-inch TV. I play Sudoku and watch Turner Classic Movies and stare out the window at the woods. I check the latest covid numbers every few hours on my phone. All of Ohio is out of control. We managed to keep the virus out of here for a while, but with the numbers this high, it was just a matter of time. I keep reading about how more than 100,000 people have died in places just like this, and I don’t want to be one of them. I make it from one sunrise to the next. I keep breathing. That’s it. That’s the whole goal.

I saw my doctor a few weeks ago, before this whole outbreak started. I’m only 64, but I have a lot of issues because of my accidents. I used to drive a newspaper truck, and one night I was sitting at a red light with the Sunday paper when I got plowed by a drunk driver. I have balance issues, immune suppression, lung clots, weight problems, high blood pressure. I’ve been here 23 months trying to get better and get home. My doctor told me I have at least nine of the markers that are bad for covid. I asked him: “Are there vitamins I can take? Exercises? What should I do to protect myself?” He said: “Just make sure you don’t get it.”

Don’t get it. Don’t get it. Don’t get it. That’s what my brain does all day.

I don’t let anybody come near me anymore. I have a little dresser by my door where the nurse aides put my medication and my meals. I stay away. I wait and then put on my gloves, and that’s how I eat. There are a few nurses in the morning that I trust, so that’s when I ask for help and take my shower, but otherwise I’m hunkered down. A few months ago, an aide from a temp agency tried to come in to check my vitals. We didn’t have any cases at that point, and I thought some people here were starting to get a little casual about it. Her mask was down by her chin. I’d seen her with some of the other aides talking in the break room, and they weren’t social distancing up to my standards. I told her: “Stay out of my room.” She said she needed to check my blood pressure. She said: “Why are you making this into such a big deal?” I’m a hard-ass about this stuff, and I’m not even a little bit sorry. I can’t afford to take chances. I called our administrator to log a complaint, and finally she turned around and left. I told the administrator: “I’ve studied all the protocols. I know you can’t leave me in the dark on this. If you get a positive case, you’re required to let me know.”

Bruce MacGillis is quarantining in his room at a nursing home in Mentor, Ohio. In the past week, 31 residents and 11 staff members tested positive for the coronavirus. (Amber Ford for the Washington Post)

Two staff members came to my door the Friday before Thanksgiving. They told me one resident had tested positive. They didn’t say how the virus got in. We have staff shortages, and new temps are always coming through. They live in the community. They have kids. Their kids go to school. This last month, one in every 50 people in Lake County tested positive. It could have come in from anywhere. I wrote down the time and the date in a notebook I keep next to my bed. “Okay. That’s one. Here we go.”

The next day we had another case. Sunday it was two more. Monday we had eight positives. Then a bunch of the staff started to call out sick. I keep on writing it down in my notebook, but it’s getting hard to keep up. Last time I counted our cases, we had 45 residents and 21 staff. That’s all in the last two weeks.

We need help. Shouldn’t that be obvious? The residents are scared. We can hear the beeps, the patient alarms, the ambulance sirens. We have a good core of people who work here, but a lot of our management is out sick. They keep bringing in new people to fill the gaps, and they’re trying, but this virus keeps spreading. I’m starting to get desperate. I called the county ombudsman to alert him, and he’s supposed to be our advocate, but he said a lot of nursing homes are going through outbreaks right now. He said 30 new cases is not really considered all that extreme, and everyone is trying their best. “Okay. Wonderful. Thank you for that.” I called the county, but that didn’t go anywhere. I called the CDC hotline. I called a few local Catholic priests. I called a number I found on Facebook for Dr. Fauci, but that was just another message machine. The Ohio Department of Health finally got back to me after four or five days. They took down a report and said they would notify a supervisor, but there are probably 200 of those reports waiting around in the same file. I haven’t heard back. It seems like everyone has just surrendered.

I leave messages until my phone runs out of batteries. I charge it up and try again. The other day I spent six hours making calls. I got so fed up that I dialed 911. It’s a recorded line, so at least that way I’m leaving behind some breadcrumbs. At least they’ll have something to go back to if they come in here one day and find 30 residents dead. I explained what was happening to the dispatcher, but she didn’t seem to get it. She kept asking if I was in physical pain. She asked if I wanted an ambulance. I said: “No, no. It’s bigger than that. We’re sitting ducks. We all need to be rescued.”

She said: “Sir, what’s your emergency? I’m not hearing an emergency.”

I don’t know what I expected her to do. She told me I wasn’t being rational, and maybe she’s right. But why is there never any acknowledgment? Why isn’t there urgency? At least 10 people are probably going to die in here, and it might be a lot more. What qualifies as an emergency? It feels like I’m on the Titanic, and we’re sinking, and I’m trying to make contact with the outside world using two soup cans and a string. “Hello? Hello? Can anybody hear me? Is anybody going to do anything?”

I get this sense sometimes that people are thinking: “Oh, it’s just another nursing home. It’s not a real tragedy. They were already at the end of their road.” And for a lot of people in here, that’s true. This is their last stop. But they’re still people. They’re still alive. There’s one lady in here, and she’s probably 90, and every day she steals cookies out of the cafeteria and acts like she made them herself. She puts on her lipstick and goes from room to room handing out her cookies. When she comes in, it doesn’t matter if you’re hungry. You better take a cookie. It’s what keeps her going. She needs to give it to you. But now the cafeteria’s closed, and she’s lying alone in a dark room like everyone else. There’s no human connection, no life, no hope. We’re wilting away in here. Can you understand that? You start feeling like you’ve been forgotten. Where is everyone? Do people understand what’s happening here? Do they care?

I’m coming to the realization that it’s up to me to watch out for myself. I found a plastic picnic blanket in one of the linen closets, and I’m going to tape it up over my door. Total isolation might be my only chance. I probably have to make it at least another month to the vaccine, and I guess that’s when we’ll become a priority.