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Dying from COVID-19 in Virginia Beach: Nurse shares her mother's experience with the virus, calls for help

Mary Heeke contracted coronavirus in a Virginia Beach senior home. She died days later in the hospital. Her daughter shares her heartbreak and what needs to change.

VIRGINIA BEACH, Va. — It all happened so fast. 

Patricia Yon had an aching feeling in her gut. She called Commonwealth Senior Living at King's Grant House, an assisted living facility in Virginia Beach, to check on her mother, Mary Bunce Howard Heeke.

“I was told she appeared to be weak and that the day before they had to go in and assist her off the toilet," Yon said. "That’s not my mom.”

Yon requested that her mother be taken to the Emergency Room at Sentara Virginia Beach General Hospital. She knew there had been positive coronavirus cases at King's Grant.

Mary Heeke tested positive for COVID-19. Her granddaughter and Yon's daughter, Lauren Bradley, is a nurse in the unit where Heeke received care. Bradley was the only family member able to visit her grandmother in person one last time. Heeke died days later.

“I feel guilty because I could not be with her. I feel guilty because I couldn’t be the one holding her hand and telling her that she was loved, and I will always live with that," Yon said.

She said all the nurses on the unit were "phenomenal," staying by Heeke's side during her final days when her family couldn't because of coronavirus restrictions.

“It brought peace to our family knowing that they were with her when she passed away," she said. 

Credit: Patricia Yon
Patricia Yon (left) stands with her mother Mary Bunce Howard Heeke (right). Heeke recently died after testing positive for COVID-19.

The family's story is representative of a crisis in long-term care facilities across the country, often the deadliest location for the spread of coronavirus. As of Monday, 1,747 Virginians had died from COVID-19. Nearly 65 percent of those deaths are connected to outbreaks in long-term care facilities. 

It's especially difficult for family members of nursing home residents, as they're barred from visiting loved ones in senior living facilities to help prevent the spread of the virus.

Yon said she discovered her mom’s condition started deteriorating at the nursing home five days before she called to check on her and send her to the hospital. She said nurses told her she had lost her appetite and was feeling "under the weather."

In the King’s Grant coronavirus outbreak, which started on May 15, 26 people tested positive and six residents, including Heeke, died.

“Although I’m grieving her passing, I’m angry because I don’t feel she had to die," Yon said. “Why didn’t they get her to the hospital much quicker? She might have had the opportunity to fight and might still be alive.” 

Josh Allen, a clinical consultant for Commonwealth Senior Living, said if staff members see any signs that a resident requires medical attention, they immediately contact a physician or 911.

"Any of those changes that would tell us a person's condition is deteriorating, then we're going to seek medical attention immediately," Allen said.

A spokesperson for King's Grant said there are currently zero positive cases of coronavirus in the community. He said as of Monday, "all previous positive residents who had been quarantined together are being returned to their original apartments."

Allen said the assisted living facility staff offers its deepest condolences to the families of the six residents who died in the outbreak.

“We wish so badly that this virus never would’ve become part of our lives and take their loved ones from them," Allen said.

Since her mother died, Yon's grief has changed to a call to action.

"I’ve gone from being angry and wanting to lash out, to what can we do to help [nursing homes] so this doesn’t happen to someone else’s mom," she said. “These facilities need education, they need help, they need additional staff members.” 

Yon is also a nurse. She said she knows long-term care facilities don’t have the resources that hospitals do. She said all senior homes need to be more transparent about COVID-19 cases and deaths.

“I want every family member where my mom lived to know that my mom has passed away, and she died from COVID, not to panic the other family members but to let them know," Yon said.

She received a heartbreaking voicemail from the Director of Nursing at King’s Grant after her mother passed away.

“They said that everyone there loved her, how she was going to be missed, and that they were so sorry that she was gone.”

Heeke was a devout Catholic with a love for others. Yon said she saw beauty in everything as a birdwatcher and gardener, and that she believed in true equality for all.

“She was remarkable, I’ve never met anybody like her. And I’m honored to say that I’m her daughter, and she’s my mom," she said.

Her story - a story of a family separated by the virus, of a loved one lost, and of the very real, persistent threat of the virus.

“We all need to work together to remind everybody that the coronavirus has not gone away and it’s not going anywhere," Yon said. "Just wear a mask, because we're going to be in this for the long haul. It's not over and in some states, it's just beginning."

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