Read: ‘We’re literally killing elders now’
The first death came on March 26, and more followed in quick succession. There was Father Hilary Rodgers, a 75-year-old retired priest who spent decades as a Franciscan friar. There was Lucille Williams, a mother of six who would have been 95 in May, and who had recently been crowned queen of the residence’s Mardi Gras celebration. Many of the deaths were unexpected. One nursing assistant told me that staff might check on a resident at 8 p.m. and deem her stable, only to find her dead when checking on her again at 8:30. For safety reasons, family members were not allowed into rooms to visit their sick loved ones, even as they approached death. Residents’ children and grandchildren took to standing outside the windows of the first-floor Holy Family unit, shouting conversations through the glass or holding up signs that residents could see from bed. Jack Williams, Lucille’s son, made one that said Dad is waiting for you. He was too nervous about upsetting his sisters to use it.
Inside the home, the sisters and staff were in shock. Every time they tried to grieve the death of a resident, a new person would die. “It felt like we were robbed,” Kortenhof said. “We may have 13 deaths over a year. We had 13 deaths … over a period of three weeks,” including the 11 COVID-19–related cases and two of unrelated causes. Typically, deaths at the home are slow and gentle, with residents surrounded by family and the sisters sitting by their bedside, holding a prayer vigil in three-hour shifts. COVID-19 has taken away all the normal rituals that might happen close to the end of a resident’s life. Priests cannot visit to take confession or anoint the dying. Because COVID-19 is so contagious, the sisters have to don personal protective equipment over their habits and veils anytime they enter a sick resident’s room. “One man, I was praying with him awhile with full garb on: rubber gloves, goggles, masks, gowns,” Kortenhof said. “It’s just so unnatural for us.”
A few weeks into the outbreak, the nuns started getting sick. Kortenhof and three other sisters went into isolation, leaving the residence with even fewer hands. She found it “torturous” to get messages about residents dying while she wasn’t there. “If you don’t have a strong faith, this thing would just succeed in crushing you,” she said.
Holy Week passed heavily. The deaths had become a drumbeat, and the sisters and staff were exhausted. Volunteers from the nearby Christiana Hospital came to help with equipment and care, visiting residents to take their temperature and measure the oxygen in their blood. Alone in their rooms, many in the home tuned in to channel 50, a live feed of the facility’s chapel. Each morning and afternoon, sisters who were not sick would come in to pray the rosary or recite the Divine Mercy, kneeling far from one another to maintain social distance. The channel was a small thread connecting residents in isolation, a way of being together in days of solitude.