Married for more than 73 years, Billy Jim “BJ” and Ramona Frasher were known in their Connecticut nursing home as “the lovebirds.” They shared a room, their twin beds pushed together, at the end of a hallway. He read to her each night, and if she left for a doctor's appointment during the day, he'd wait in the lobby for hours until she returned. She insisted that a landscape painting she made for him hang prominently on the wall, so he could see it from his armchair.
"They had been married for years and years and years, but it was like they were newlyweds every day,” said Angela Ruple, the admissions director at Greentree Manor Nursing and Rehabilitation Center in Waterford, their home for just under seven years.
Added Lauren Doherty, the facility's medical director: “He used to say, ‘I want her to die five minutes before me, so that she doesn't have to watch me die, and then I don't have to live without her.'"
As coronavirus cases spiked across the country late last fall, Greentree was hit with an outbreak. The couple tested positive in November, and their health declined rapidly. Soon they shared a hospital room, their beds pushed next to each other, and then hospice care. Ramona, 92, died on December 5. Though he was unconscious, BJ, 95, remained by her side and stayed true to his word: His breath slowed as soon as nurses told him his wife was gone, daughter Vickie Meyers, 69, said. He died four days later.
"I didn't want it to happen now, but I did want them to go together,” said Meyers, who, like the Greentree Manor staff, feared what would happen if one survived and the other didn't.
Less than two weeks after they died, nursing home residents in Connecticut began receiving shots in arms. The state would go on to become the first in the country to vaccinate its nursing home population. A federal partnership with pharmacies to vaccinate nearly all U.S. nursing homes, where the pandemic has claimed more than 131,000 lives, recently wrapped up its work and death rates have plummeted.
New federal guidance has opened the facilities to visitors after a year of coronavirus lockdown.
Each time Meyers sees images of families reuniting with and embracing loved ones living in long-term care, she said, it's “a knife through the heart."