Mari Esther Sheets is more powerful than she seems. The cancer and stroke survivor is 55. She lives at Samaritas, a nursing home in Grand Rapids. And because she’s so young — and aware — she can speak up for other residents in the facility.
Tory Kamerling, her boyfriend, describes her as an advocate.
The couple spoke with Michigan Radio’s Will Callan about being apart during COVID-19, and what it was like when the virus overran the facility.
Mari: “I used to work as a clinical secretary for surgery at Metro Health Hospital here in Wyoming, Michigan, until I had my stroke on November 14, 2014.”
Tory: “She had been experiencing headaches for weeks.”
Mari: “I was in the lunchroom with my coworkers. And I kept telling them, ‘I don't feel good. I don't feel good. I feel funny, my left arm feels funny.’ Which is all the classic signs of a stroke….
“So they get me down to Metro’s E.R., and they got the clot busting meds in my veins, within eight minutes.”
Tory: “She had a blood clot that formed in her carotid artery. That created the first stroke and then the second stroke happened when they opened up her skull to relieve the pressure from the brain swelling. And that's when she had a bleed. So she had two different strokes within 48 hours.”
Mari: “I didn’t have function on my left side. Couldn't walk. Couldn't use my left hand. Could barely see out of my left eye.
“I tried living at Tory's for a little while with our friends coming in to help take care of me. But then it got to be a little too much. And we both decided on the same morning, that this isn't working, we need to find something different.”
News of infection
Tory: “We weren't sure exactly when the first case of COVID occurred in the facility at Samaritas.
“It became a requirement that they notify family members. That's when we found out to the extent of which COVID had invaded that facility in particular.
“So we were looking at ways of getting her out of that environment, because at this facility they've had 70, I believe, 75 residents test positive and of the 75, I believe, 35 have passed away. (According to the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services, Samaritas has seen 79 cases and 36 deaths among residents. Samaritas confirmed those numbers in a statement.)
“We had a pretty good plan on getting her home, and that was on a Friday and then on Saturday she started to exhibit some symptoms. And then on Sunday, it got worse… and then that’s when it became clear she was exhibiting serious signs of COVID and we weren't going to be able to bring her home.
“Pre-COVID lockdown, I was going there every night. And making sure that her day went well and that she got into bed on time.
“And then when, when the lockdown happened, we just reverted to using phone calls.
“We talk every day, at least two or three times a day.”
Mari: “The isolation part was really hard to get used to, because I was used to getting out of my room and going wherever I wanted to in the building. Or leaving with Tory and going out to dinner.”
Tory: “After three weeks, Mari’s symptoms went away.
“The facility was trying to do the best it can with the availability of nurses' aides that it had. But they were never able to fully meet the demands of the residents." (In the statement, Samaritas' chief operating officer of senior living Kim Thompson acknowledged that Samaritas, like other long-term care facilities, is struggling to hire enough staff.)
Tory: “Mari hears the conversations between workers … during shift changes about who's going to take care of who or who doesn't want to take care of who.
“She also hears the complaints about problems with management or supplies.
“The other thing that Mari adds to the environment is kind of another set of eyes to help keep an eye on people and make sure that they're being taken care of.
Mari: “I've kind of gotten to know what people need. Like if they try to get up and start walking down the hallway, and they forget their walker. I yell at them, ‘Hey, get your walker. Where's your walker?’ And they go, ‘I don't know, I don't know. I left it.’ ‘Well, sit in this chair and think about it before you fall down and break a hip.’”
Tory: “I think a lot of the people around there kind of forget that Mari has a maybe a better awareness of what's going on.
Mari: “At some point this COVID thing will go away. We can only hope. Because sometimes that hope is all we have.
“Take a big deep breath, and you put on your big girl pants. And just realize this is how it's going to be for right now."