As outbreak continues, worries run high at home for veterans

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Navy veteran Gregory Couture waves to his wife of 46 years Celeste at the window of the Town Hall meeting area of the New Hampshire Veterans Home in Tilton on Tuesday, March 17, 2020. Photo/Geoff Forester

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Celeste Couture was shopping at Market Basket when she received a call from the N.H veterans home that her husband tested positive for COVID-19.

Of course, she was concerned – like most residents at the veteran’s home, Greg Couture has a bad heart, which puts him at risk of developing a severe case of the virus. But she found comfort in her daily calls with her husband, which reassured her everything was OK.

Then, for five long days, silence. She was worried sick about his condition but didn’t dare try to call the nursing staff. She knew they were overwhelmed with caring for all of the COVID patients. They would call if something was really wrong, she reassured herself. No news had to be good news.

The couple met at an ice cream shop in 1969 where Celeste was working as a waitress and Greg worked night shifts as a maintenance worker. She brought him coffee (which she admits spilling on him at least once) and he taught her how to clean the stove she used.

More than 50 years later, Celeste lives alone, save for a cat who mostly keeps to himself. Greg moved to Mountain Ridge Center, a long-term care facility, about five years ago after he had several strokes that affected his ability to walk and speak. A spot for Greg opened up at the veterans home in February, just a week before an outbreak of COVID-19 hit Mountain Ridge and infected one of his best friends.

On Thursday evening, Celeste finally got a call from Greg, who said he had just been too exhausted to pick up the phone. Compared to many in the nursing home, he seemed to emerge from the virus with relatively mild symptoms – a nagging tiredness and loss of appetite. More than 20 at the home had died from the virus in less than a month, including one of Greg’s close friends on Thanksgiving day.

Still, the emotional and physical stress have taken a toll on him.

“It’s just brutal,” she said. “He can’t really understand. He figures he should be getting over it by now and he still feels bad.”

For nearly eight months, the N.H Veterans Home avoided the devastating coronavirus outbreaks that plagued many of the state’s nursing homes. Then, early one November morning, Margaret LaBrecque, the home’s Commandant, received a call. Several residents had high temperatures. Within a couple of days, they had tested positive for the virus.

“Your heart is breaking but you keep putting one foot in front of the other because there are 117 veterans who are here, relying on us,” she said.

Navy veteran Gregory Couture talks with his wife, Celeste, while social distancing at the outdoor pavillion at the New Hampshire Veterans Home in Tilton on Thurday, July 16,2020. It was the first time the couple had seen each other outdoors since the COVID-19 pandemic. Photo/Geoff Forester

More than other homes in the state, LaBrecque feels like staff and residents are bonded at the Veterans Home. It’s called the veteran’s home for a reason, she said.

“They get very attached to each other,” she said. “They’re comrades. They may not have fought in the same war at the same time but they definitely provide each other comfort and so it’s like they’re losing a family member and a best friend.”

But for staff, treating residents like family is exhausting when all around you, residents are dying or carted off to isolation units.

“We are going to need grief counseling,” she said. “We are definitely going to need it.” Staff members felt like no matter how careful they were, no matter how many times they wiped down every surface with disinfectant or scrubbed their hands, more and more people were testing positive for the virus every day.

“They’re tired, they’re frustrated,” she said. “They are doing everything they can, and our residents are still sick. You can imagine as a caregiver how difficult that is. I think with this virus, no matter how good you are at what you’re doing, it is very, very contagious.”

In total, 66 staff members contracted COVID-19, straining the already tired workforce. Thirteen part-time workers stopped picking up shifts as soon as the first positive case was announced.

Some family members feel as though this staff shortage has impacted the home’s ability to provide care to all of their residents. Pam Lariviere, whose uncle lived in the dementia unit of the veteran’s home, said she thought many of uncle’s basic needs were neglected.

In an email to Lariviere, LaBrecque said staff at the nursing home will launch a full investigation into the matter.

The state brought in infectious disease experts to review every safety protocol. They suggested disinfecting surfaces eight times a shift instead of four times and getting rid of any unnecessary surfaces – like books and puzzles – that have the slightest probability of transmitting the virus between residents. The National Guard came in to help test more than 100 faculty and staff.

Even so, the infection numbers kept climbing.

While Celeste feels incredibly lucky her husband is recovering from the virus, it’s undeniable that the pandemic has been an adjustment for the couple.

Since early March, she has stood outside in sometimes freezing temperatures to get a look at Greg through the window. Greg looked down from his friend’s room, which had a better vantage point of the crosswalk. Even when outdoor visitations were still allowed, they didn’t have privacy during their conversations because staff had to enforce safety precautions. They couldn’t touch each other either, which is particularly hard for the Coutures, who describe themselves as “hugging people.”

LaBrecque said the veterans are fighting through the tough times.

“You can tell they’re worried but they’ve actually been to war,” she said. “They’re a little more resilient than your normal senior.”

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