By Sally Kestin
Kathie Carnahan nursed her husband through two major surgeries, watched helplessly as dementia robbed the once vibrant attorney of the ability to speak, and made the gut-wrenching decision to place him in an Asheville nursing home.
But nothing compared to the pair of phone calls the family received two weeks ago from administrators at Aston Park Health Care Center. The first brought the news she had dreaded: Covid-19 had entered the nursing home. And then: her beloved Burt was infected.
“My heart sank, and I thought, ‘Oh god, it’s happening,’ ” she said. “It was the worst moment in my life.”
The coronavirus is surging through Aston Park, one of the hardest hit of the 83 North Carolina nursing homes with outbreaks. Two-thirds of the residents and 37 workers are infected.
“We are continuing to test residents and staff members weekly and expect that those numbers will increase,” said Executive Director Marsha Kaufman.
As of Wednesday afternoon, the death toll stood at 15 patients. Others were hospitalized, including Nelcy Reece, a resident in the Memory Care unit.
“He was up and walking and talking on Wednesday and was unresponsive on Friday,” said his daughter, Tammy Thacker. “Everything is just kind of touch and go, minute by minute.”
Families of residents have bonded, brought together by a shared anguish over who will be next and how loved ones they can’t see or touch are faring, surrounded by such sickness and death. The reassuring smiles of caregivers that once provided their spouses and parents comfort are hidden behind face shields and masks.
“We understand their fears and concerns,” Kaufman told AVL Watchdog in an email. “We are caring for their family members as if they were our own.
“We are fighting this virus with every ounce of our being.”
‘Scared to death’
Carnahan used to visit her husband every day. At 75, he was fit and dapper. She sat with him at mealtime, encouraging him to eat.
That ended in early March, when Aston Park closed to visitors as a precaution against the virus.
“I was grateful,” she said. “I felt like there was that measure of security, and they were being proactive.”
Still, fear of an outbreak gripped Carnahan. “I was scared to death that he would die, and I wouldn’t be with him. That image haunted me around the clock.”
Her four adult children warned her: the virus that has ravaged nursing homes across the country “will come to Dad.”
“All I could imagine was just him struggling and being afraid all by himself,” said Carnahan, 65, an education consultant for college-bound students.
Now, contact with her husband of 25 years consists of Facetime sessions whenever the exhausted and depleted staff can find the time.
Carnahan does all the talking. Her husband can only listen, unable to comprehend her words.
On a recent session, “he tried to start kissing the phone,” she said. “He’s just the sweetest.”
Burt Carnahan, once a titan in insurance law, co-founded a law firm in New Orleans. He was a runner who enjoyed fishing, hiking and traveling the world with his wife. At 65, the forgetfulness he’d been experiencing was formally diagnosed, and his dementia worsened after the couple moved to North Asheville in 2014.
He wandered outside in a robe while his wife showered. Once, she found him in their hot tub.
He suffered flashbacks to Vietnam, where he was an Army lieutenant in a regiment called the Wolfhounds. “He thought the enemy was trying to hurt us and he was getting physically rough with me,” his wife said.
On the advice of his caregivers, she moved him into Aston Park last year, a decision she called the most sorrowful of her life. “That last month, I took a ton of pictures of him as he slept. I knew he would never be there again, next to me.”
The virus seems to have spared her husband the worst symptoms. He’s lost weight, has a dry cough and is lethargic, but is mobile and has no fever.
“I know this disease is wily,” Carnahan said. “Because this virus is so unpredictable, I don’t want to let my guard down.”
She yearns for her husband’s cool, calm demeanor in crises. And she misses seeing him, holding his hand, helping him eat.
“We are still madly, crazy in love with each other,” Carnahan said, fighting tears. “It’s wonderful, but it’s also a curse. This is not how our ending was supposed to be.”
Sick and confused
Katie Jacquot, 86, entered Aston Park two years ago, when her dementia became too much for her family. Daughter Jacqueline came to appreciate and know the employees during regular visits.
For the past three months, her only glimpses of her mother are through a window. Katie Jacquot has been fighting Covid-19 for over two weeks. She’s confused and unable to comprehend what’s happening.
On one visit, she refused to look at her daughter.
“She didn’t understand why I wasn’t coming in…and it just broke my heart,” her daughter said. “I kept trying to explain to her there’s a virus. She looked at me like I’m nuts.”
Jacquot came up with a story her mother might understand. “I made a sign that says, ‘Mom, I’m sorry I’m sick. I can’t come in.’ ”
A medical staff coordinator at Mission Hospital, Jacquot receives updates by phone on her mother’s health: she’s sleeping and doesn’t want to get up; she’s barely eating. Her daughter worries about a lung infection.
“Any other time in there, if she caught the slightest cold, they’d have to give her breathing treatments,” Jacquot said. “I was really worried she was going to die immediately.”
Born and raised in Asheville, Katie Jacquot was a basketball star whose compassion for animals led her to rescue baby squirrels and birds. She lived in Michigan and Maryland, drove a school bus for students with special needs and worked nights at a convenience store to support her family.
“She had the most common sense of anyone I have ever met,” Jacquot said. “She was always my go-to.”
She and her brother, Rick, visit the nursing home often, setting up folding chairs outside her room and hoping familiar faces will reassure her. Their uncle, Bruce, Katie’s Jacquot’s only living brother, sometimes joins them.
At one point after the outbreak, the staff moved Jacquot as they tried to segregate patients testing positive from those who might not have been exposed.
“I can’t imagine being my mother waking up in a strange room with pictures of someone else’s family, and people are around her in space suits all day,” Jacquot said. “It’s got to be horrifying, and she’s sick.
“I have hardly slept and worry all the time what is going on.”
Waiting for the call
Covid-19 tests on Cecile Pons, 87, came back negative twice. But on Saturday, her daughter noticed that her voice on the phone sounded congested.
“She said to me, ‘My throat hurts really bad,’” said Cynthia Baldwin. “I thought, ‘Oh, no.’”
Pons’s breathing became labored, and the nursing home doctor said she had pneumonia. “By Sunday, she was so ill, they were concerned she was going to die,” said Baldwin, a retired nurse in Asheville.
Her mother is forgetful but comprehends that a bad sickness is going around. “She said she knew it could happen and all we could do is pray about it,” Baldwin said.
Pons worked as a supervisor on the sewing floor of Shadowline Lingerie in Morganton, North Carolina. The company sent her to school to become a cost engineer, said her daughter, one of four children.
“She worked five days a week and half a day on Saturday,” Baldwin said. “Each child had to help the one below.”
She described her mother as a devout Christian who’s “always been a positive person, extremely well read.”
“She talks about God and all that God’s given her, and she’s really grateful to the staff,” Baldwin said. “Everybody that comes in her room gets an, ‘I love you.’ ”
On Tuesday, Baldwin hung balloons and banners of support for staff outside the entrance to the nursing home. “The courage, that’s what I admire,” she said.
Her mother’s condition stabilized earlier this week. “The hardest thing,” Baldwin said, ”is just waiting for a call that she’s worse or she’s died.”
‘These valued souls’
Aston Park resident Nelcy Reece is gravely ill at Mission Hospital. The family opted against a ventilator. His three children and wife of 54 years are unable to see him with the pandemic-related restrictions on visitation.
“The mortality rate for people in the elderly at risk population is so high,” said his daughter, Tammy Thacker. “Just the fear of the unknown and not being able to be with him or assess the situation firsthand has been hard.”
Reece, 74, was a lifelong member of the Burnett Siding Baptist Church in Canton and was “an avid outdoorsman his entire life,” his daughter said. He was a supervisor at Wilsonart, a manufacturer of surfacing materials in Fletcher.
The family chose Aston Park for its renowned work with dementia patients, and Thacker said Reece received exceptional care there.
An ultrasound technician, Thacker leans on her background in healthcare to interpret her dad’s medical updates for the family.
She has also arranged for shipments of Gatorade and Personal Protective Equipment to the nursing home. The family provided lunch for the staff one day this week.
“They’re working short-staffed in a very scary environment with a deadly virus, and they’re worrying about their coworkers,” she said.
Two Aston Park employees with Covid are hospitalized, said Kaufman, the administrator. One longtime employee posted a video on Facebook this week saying a prayer just before she entered the facility for the start of her 12-hour shift.
“I’m asking you out there to please pray over our residents and our nursing home,” she said.
Thacker hopes Asheville rallies around Aston Park and three other Buncombe nursing homes with Covid outbreaks.
“It’s just so sad,” she said, “that this unfortunate thing is stealing the life from these valued souls.”
AVL Watchdog is a nonprofit news team producing stories that matter to Asheville and Buncombe County. Sally Kestin is a Pulitzer Prize-winning investigative reporter. Contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org.