Sacred Heart Home adapts to coronavirus restrictions
By Sophie Gorman Oriani
Two young women, both wearing masks, stand outside Sacred Heart Home. Inside, behind a glass door, stands one of the home’s elderly residents. They can wave at each other through the glass and talk on the phone, but they cannot breathe the same air or touch each other. This is the new normal at Sacred Heart, as the Sisters Servants of Mary Immaculate are finding new ways to help the residents cope with the ongoing coronavirus pandemic.
Maryland’s nursing homes, like so many throughout the nation, have been hit hard by COVID-19. As of July 30, approximately 60% of the more than 3,500 deaths reported in the state have been in nursing homes, group homes and assisted living facilities, according to the Maryland Department of Health. This includes five deaths at Sacred Heart prior to June 15. As of the week of July 30, there were over 680 active cases in nursing homes in Prince George’s County.
While Sacred Heart had no active cases in July, more than two dozen staff members and residents had previously tested positive for COVID-19. “[The Maryland Department of Health] warned us that it’s a matter of time before employees would be bringing it to the facility,” said Sister Vacha Kludziak, Sacred Heart’s administrator. Kludziak added that most of the employees were asymptomatic when they tested positive.
Since the sisters live on the property, they were able to fill in, in the event that there was a staffing shortage. “There were some days that I was literally numb because I was doing everything we could,” commented Kludziak. “We were doing everything and anything possible, hands-on, and it was so hard sometimes.”
Kludziak said that as of June 15, most of the employees had received the two negative tests required before they could come back to work. “We just go by the guidelines of [the] CDC and health department,” said Kludziak, noting that when guidelines differ, Sacred Heart uses the more stringent set.
Daily life at Sacred Heart looks different now, too. Essential employees are screened more frequently, and only two of the nine sisters go out on errands, while the other seven, including Kludziak, all stay on the property to limit their contact with the outside world. “Everybody has to make a sacrifice and do their part in order to protect others,” said Kludziak.
Kludziak says the average age of residents is around 90 years old. She described the population as “very vulnerable, with a lot of underlying conditions.”
While no visitors are allowed in the building, the staff has been creative in finding ways to keep residents happy and help them have virtual contact with their families. Staff with the home’s activity department visit residents in their rooms with books and puzzles.
Sacred Heart staff has turned to Zoom and FaceTime, too, especially for residents who struggle to make phone calls on their own. When visitors come, they stay outside the building and see residents through windows while talking with them by phone.
As of press time, and according to the Maryland Department of Health website, Sacred Heart no longer has any active cases, but the facility still requires screening, and restrictions remain in place.
“It’s difficult for the residents,” according to Kludziak, to see the employees wearing all the necessary protective gear. A number of residents who suffer from cognitive decline struggle to understand why the rules have changed.
“What I realized is, it’s easy to trust God and see His will when everything goes … according to your plan,” explained Kludziak. “But … if everything doesn’t look that good right now … that’s the time that your faith has a chance to grow and mature.”
Kludziak is hopeful that conditions will start to improve soon, but she’s not counting on anything. She draws strength from “seeing God” in every resident. “No matter how tired you are, no matter how frustrated or scared you are. …. You say, ‘OK, God, I’ll do whatever You want me to do today, but I need You to be right there,’” said Kludziak. “You just take it one day at a time, one step at a time, and that’s it.”