Survivor stories from a deadly COVID-19 outbreak at a New Brunswick nursing home

December 9, 2021
Survivor stories from a deadly COVID-19 outbreak at a New Brunswick nursing home
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When Réa Bérubé and Denise Savage met in person for the first time, they embraced as dear friends. 

The two share a deep bond because of what they went through during the deadly COVID-19 outbreak in October at a northern New Brunswick nursing home.

Bérubé learned on Oct. 16 that her 88-year-old mother had been infected at Villa Renaissance in Dalhousie.

Savage was the nurse on the provincial rapid outbreak management team who broke the news to her a short time later that her mother’s condition was deteriorating.

“She informed me that there was already crackling in Mom’s left anterior lung,” Bérubé said.

There were seven deaths during the COVID-19 outbreak that began in October at Villa Renaissance in Dalhousie. (Radio-Canada)

“Sadly, her symptoms … evolved very quickly,” recalled Savage, who had come from Tracadie to help deal with the outbreak.

Ann Bérubé’s nose, ears and lips were turning blue and she was having “much more difficulty breathing,” Savage said.

The family agreed she could be given medication to prevent her from suffering.

Saying goodbye to Mom from a distance

The home organized a video call between Ann and her six children. 

“I found it very heartwarming and so did my family,” Réa said.

Visits being prohibited, they hadn’t seen each other in person for almost two months, since Ann’s birthday in late August.

The children told their mother they loved her and said their goodbyes.

Then, despite a wind and rainstorm, Réa went to her mother’s window to see her one last time.

Ann Bérubé receiving end-of-life care from Villa Renaissance nursing staff. (Submitted by Réa Bérubé)

“It was a moment that I will never forget in my life,” Savage said.

“It was a helpless feeling, seeing this family outside the window. You wanted so much to be able to speak with them.”

“As difficult as the situation was and as sick as Mrs. Bérubé was, they made me feel that they trusted me, even though I was a total stranger.”

Réa Bérubé, left, is grateful for the care Sauvage gave to her mother. (Janique LeBlanc/Radio-Canada)

Réa said her mother received lavish care while she watched through the window for 3½ hours.

“It was my way of accompanying Mom … I was in pain, but I was at peace to see that she was not in distress,” she said. “It helped me accept what happened.”

Licensed practical nurse Natalie Poirier was there to hold Ann’s hand at the end. She’d known the woman as a longtime community volunteer. 

“In the final moments, it tears your heart out,” Poirier said. “It’s like a member of your family.”

Ann died the night after her COVID-19 diagnosis.

The pain of losing a colleague

Almost simultaneously, a 48-year-old man who worked at Villa Renaissance, also succumbed to COVID. 

Diane Léger’s voice breaks when she speaks about the death of Reno Maltais.

“It was tragic,” said the home’s executive director. 

“That employee had been with us for over 25 years. His work was his life. … He was always there for the residents. “

Another licensed practical nurse who works at the home, Laci Furlotte, agreed Maltais’s death was a big loss.

“We were always together,” she said. “The residents loved him. He loved them. It was hard for everyone.”

Poirier wiped away tears as she talked about Maltais, who was both her coworker and her cousin.

“I tried to be strong for the residents, for the co-workers and also for the family members,” she said.

Licensed practical nurse Natalie Poirier, who works at Villa Renaissance, lost two cousins during the outbreak — one who worked there and one who was a resident. Both were under the age of 50. (Radio-Canada)

Savage was at bedsides treating COVID patients when word came of Maltais’s death. 

She was overwhelmed by the reaction of those around her. 

“There were some who were crying. There were some who were screaming, but there was one who said, ‘We’re going to stay here, and we’re going to continue to provide care for our residents out of respect for our colleague and our families and everyone.'”

Every employee showed up to work the next day.

“It was unbelievable to see how loyal they were after going through something like that,” Léger said.

Fear of the virus

Maltais’s death also stoked fears about the virus.

“That’s when I got scared,” said Savage, who had worked at several other nursing homes during outbreaks, “because we didn’t know what the delta variant was going to do to us.”

LPN Laci Furlotte is struggling to recover from the loss of her coworker and six residents. (Radio-Canada)

Furlotte wondered every day if she was going to be infected. 

“I was not afraid for myself. It was more for the residents, for the employees, for my family,” said the mother of two.

Furlotte was one of many Villa employees who lived in campers in the parking lot for about three weeks during the outbreak to avoid the possibility of infecting their family members. 

Afraid of bringing COVID home to their loved ones and in order to be close to work, Laci Furlotte and some of her colleagues lived in this recreational vehicle in the Villa parking lot during the outbreak. (Submitted by Laci Furlotte)

Poirier and her partner also self-isolated. 

“We stayed away from our loved ones. That’s what I found most difficult — not seeing the children, the grandchildren. I have a granddaughter who was born during the outbreak, and I couldn’t see her.”

Residents grateful

“They worked hard,” said resident Bertha Gallie, tearing up as she thought of employees who worked overtime during the outbreak and were unable to see their families.

The 88-year-old found it difficult to be confined to her room 24 hours a day for three weeks.

“It was really long,” said the mother of seven, “but the children came to the window.” 

Resident Bertha Gallie said it was a long three weeks’ confinement in her room during the outbreak. (Radio-Canada)

For Gisèle Giroux, the most frustrating thing was not being able to enter the home to help her father, who has dementia. 

Lionel Giroux, 81, is one of the 14 residents who contracted COVID-19. 

“It was really difficult,” said Giroux. “We waited for the call every day. We didn’t know what call we were going to get.”

Sadness, fatigue and worries

The COVID-19 outbreak at Villa Renaissance officially ended Nov. 10, but residents and staff are still acutely feeling its effects. 

Residents who survived COVID don’t have the energy they used to have, said Furlotte, who admitted she too is still struggling to recover.  

“It’s very difficult to come into work when the colleague you were working with is gone.

“It’s hard when you’re used to working with residents and they’re gone. You walk past the closed door to their room, and there’s no one there. “

“I don’t want to cry all the time at work. It’s difficult.”

To help her deal with the experience, she’s getting counselling, writing and taking part in a support group organized by the home.

Poirier also finds it difficult to go to work. 

“I think it’s still too fresh,” she said. “We haven’t had time to process everything we’ve been through — all the emotions we experienced.” 

Carrying on

Porier is also mourning another cousin, a 49-year-old resident who was very involved at the home.

Despite the grief, life goes on at Villa Renaissance. 

Family members are once again allowed to visit. 

Gallie is delighted to be able to hug her children again and have her meals in the dining room.

Employees, too, are happy that family members are back, but they also fear a new outbreak.

Everyone is hoping COVID-19 won’t strike twice.

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