En español | A brain aneurysm and massive stroke did not stop Arline Chesley after she suffered both more than 21 years ago. Doctors gave her five years max to live, but she carried on in spite of her limitations.
Then she contracted COVID-19 at her nursing home, Sagepoint Senior Living Services in Maryland, last April. She died on May 6 at age 78, after 17 days on a ventilator.
"That's what makes it so devastating,” says her younger of two sons, Patrick Chesley, 56. “She survived all that she went through, and then the coronavirus comes through and takes her life.” Nine months later, he still struggles to accept her death and mourns that he couldn't give her the funeral she deserved. The injustice of it all still gets him fired up, as COVID-19 cases continue to climb and deniers keep making noise. “I can't go a day without dealing with this,” he says, “unless I stay in the house with my phone and the TV off.”
He recognized his mother's strength early on. He was just 2 when he says she left an abusive marriage to raise her boys on her own. He recalls the years they lived in one room in a rundown building he described as “an old shack.” They had no running water and only a hot plate and small refrigerator for a kitchen. But his mother found joy even as she struggled and taught her boys to appreciate what they had, and the experience made them all stronger, Chesley says.
She had a cosmetology license, operated a salon, and cut and styled the hair of families — in some cases four generations of them — throughout Maryland's Charles County. At one point, she even styled hair for the deceased at a local funeral home. Later, she worked as an assistant teacher for high school students with special needs and was beloved throughout the community. The family of three moved around the county for years, until she finally bought a home of her own. She took pride in her manicured yard and flowers — and in cooking in her real kitchen. She loved music, especially Diana Ross and the Supremes, and dancing.
The stroke and brain aneurysm left her paralyzed on the right side of her body and confined to a wheelchair. She could say the simplest of words or recite material locked in her memory, including the alphabet and the Lord's Prayer, but lost her ability to carry on conversations. What she didn't lose: her commitment to care for others.
"She would give the shirt off her back to anyone,” Chesley says.
She made a point to visit her friends and neighbors every day in the nursing home, where she lived for two decades — the last 14 years under Sagepoint ownership. She'd wheel into their rooms to check on them and, if they needed something or she didn't like what she saw, she'd roll up to the nursing station to seek help. That stopped when COVID showed up and tore through the 170-bed nonprofit facility.
Going on TV to voice concerns
Chesley, a water treatment specialist, lives in McDonough, Georgia, but made frequent trips to Maryland to see his mother, even during the pandemic. He grew worried about her care, especially when she was put on oxygen in late March. He hopped in his car to drive north.
The nursing home sent her to the hospital but told Chesley she'd tested negative for the virus. He was sitting in the hospital parking lot when a doctor called to tell him otherwise. Not only did she have COVID, he says, he also learned she had a urinary tract infection, which made him wonder if her changings were being overlooked at Sagepoint.
The hospital didn't have a room for his mother and returned her to the nursing home. Given the pandemic, which barred outsiders from entering, he made frequent window visits. Chesley says he worried when he caught glimpses into the hallways and spotted staff not wearing gowns and gloves. He says several employees told him they had to wear the same personal protective equipment (PPE) for days at a time. He felt like the home he'd trusted for so long was hiding things. After he voiced his concerns about Sagepoint on a local TV evening news report, he says he got a call from the nursing home. He demanded that he be allowed inside to see his mother.
The day he entered in April still haunts him. Decked out in full PPE, he headed down the hallway he'd walked countless times over the years, past the rooms of residents he'd come to know. He spotted empty beds and heard moaning behind closed doors. And when he got to his mother, for the first time in his life, she didn't know who he was.
Chesley left and drove straight to a nearby church to pray. Two hours later he got the call that her oxygen levels had dropped. She'd been rushed to the hospital where she'd later die.
Nursing home gets $10,000-a-day fines
As of early February, 108 residents and 52 staff members at Sagepoint Senior Living Services have tested positive for COVID-19, and 36 residents and one staff member have died of the disease, according to the Maryland Department of Health. Sagepoint denies any wrongdoing, even though the health department's Office of Health Care Quality slapped the nursing home with $440,000 in penalties, including for “not following infection control safety practices and guidance recommended by the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), during a COVID-19 pandemic.” Among the disputed complaints, which the home calls “patently false": recycling of PPE, inadequate hand hygiene and not isolating COVID-positive residents from others.
"We have gone to court over the fines and allegations made by the state agency,” said Joyce Riggs, a spokeswoman for the nursing home, “and we fully expect to win.”
Riggs says the state “misapplied” guidance from the CDC and, as a result, the home is being punished for following protocols they were given. “This outbreak did not happen because of anything we did, but because the virus is highly contagious and presents with and without specific symptoms,” Riggs said in a written statement.
Riggs wants the Sagepoint experience to be a warning to others. “As prepared and proactive as we were, this happened TO us,” she wrote. “This will happen to many more nursing homes unless there is more understanding of how nursing homes are disadvantaged due to accepting pandemic admissions; working with limited space; servicing the most vulnerable population; and working in an environment with a novel and highly susceptible disease.”
Riggs called Chesley's mother “a dearly loved part of our Sagepoint family,” insisted the home “communicated regularly” with families and that Arline Chesley “did not test positive until her hospitalization.” She also touted the home's five-star Medicare rating and honors it has received from Newsweek and U.S. News and World Report – accolades that Chesley says feel like “a slap in the face."
Since losing his mother nine months ago, Chesley has tried to stay strong — like she was. The father of three recommitted to his marriage and family after a five-year separation because “life is just too short,” he says, and nothing would have made his mom happier. And he got a tattoo to honor her on his upper arm. “ ‘Mommy’ Arline,” it says, and features a lion in recognition of her zodiac sign, Leo. Above that there is an infinity sign, symbolizing her eternal embrace.
This article grew out of our effort to collect stories of people with loved ones in nursing homes. Share your story.
Jessica Ravitz is a contributing writer who covers nursing homes and human-interest stories. She previously wrote for CNN Digital and The Salt Lake Tribune, and her work has also appeared in Smithsonian magazine, The Washington Post and The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.