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Her Brother's in a Coronavirus-Stricken Nursing Home — Her Mind Is Spinning

Bernice Stafford-Turner has looked after her 66-year-old brother since they were kids

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Bernice Stafford-Turner with her brother Fred Stafford
Courtesy Bernice Stafford-Turner

Bernice Stafford-Turner, 68, has looked out for her baby brother ever since he was hit by a car at age 3 and suffered a life-altering brain injury.

Two years ago, when it became clear he needed more support than she could offer, Stafford-Turner moved her brother into Canterbury Rehabilitation and Healthcare Center in Richmond, Virginia, where she lives.

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Now Fred Stafford, 66, is one of at least 130 residents to have tested positive for COVID-19 in the nursing home, where the coronavirus has claimed at least 49 lives, representing one of the deadliest outbreaks in the nation.

Her brother is asymptomatic, but that doesn't mean Stafford-Turner, a lawyer, is at peace. What if his condition changes or he's infected again?

She worries that he's lonely, that no one is communicating with him. She fears that he isn't being watched, that he might aspirate, that his diaper needs changing. She doesn't think he knows he can push a button to call for help. Even if he does, she says, her brother isn't the sort of person who'd push it.

It's not that she doesn't trust the people working there at the facility: “They're trying to be responsible, but they're overwhelmed.”

In college, Stafford-Turner majored in special education and taught Fred how to write his name. She later enrolled in a certified nursing assistant program so she'd know how best to take care of him during the decade he lived with her. And when he declared one day that he wanted to be a preacher, she bought him a cross and a shirt with a collar, enrolled him in a bible study program and began calling him “Reverend Fred.”

She used to pop in a few times a week to see him at his long-term care facility, but now she's locked out because of a federal ban on almost all nursing home visits during the pandemic. At a loss for what to do, she's taken to writing letters to officials.

Stafford-Turner has reached out to her senators, governor, even the president on her brother's behalf. She advocates for improved testing, protective measures and interventions, and a nursing home task force to focus on residents’ rights.

She wants people to know that Fred Stafford is more than a number. He loves fishing, gospel music and Barack Obama. He's a “tough cookie” who's pulled through after being placed on critical lists “at least 10 times in his lifetime,” she says.

Amid the angst, she clings to happy memories. She recalls the cross-country road trip they took with their late mother four years ago. Loaded into Stafford-Turner's 1991 Ford Econoline van, they headed west. They looked out at the Pacific Ocean from California, watched fireworks and gambled in Las Vegas and peered up at the stars from the desert.

Her brother announced, from the front passenger seat, “I'm your copilot!” Especially now, she wants to be his.

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