Death in a pandemic brings frustration, helplessness, and awe for this Morris County family

Mary McCool, who died Monday in Morristown from complications of COVID-19 at age 97, pictured with her great-grandchildren. Photo courtesy of the family.
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Losing a loved one never is easy. But for the family of Mary McCool, who died Monday from complications of COVID-19 at the newly reopened Atlantic Rehabilitation Institute in Morristown, the last three weeks have been excruciating.

As the pandemic rampages forward, this family’s jumble of emotions is becoming all too familiar:

Frustration, from trying to pry answers from a longterm care facility in lockdown; helplessness, at being unable to comfort a dying loved one; and gratitude, for hospice workers who risked their own safety to provide dignity and compassion in the waning moments of a remarkable life.

“It’s heart-breaking,” McCool’s granddaughter said of the maelstrom that enveloped her grandmother, who died one week shy of her 98th birthday.

Mary McCool, left, with her daughter, Claudia Johnson of Madison. McCool died in Morristown on April 6, 2020, from COVID-19. She was one week shy of her 98th birthday. Photo courtesy of the family.

Described as strong-minded and progressive, McCool lived independently until February.

A Berkeley grad, she who worked at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory before a successful career as a Houston realtor. She kept up with current events and was proficient on her iMac computer, said the granddaughter, who asked that her name be withheld.

When McCool began needing help with everyday chores, her family moved her last month to Brighton Gardens, a Florham Park assisted living facility operated by  Sunrise Senior Living of MacLean, Va.

As the pandemic progressed, and Brighton Gardens barred visitors as a safety precaution, McCool’s family said it was left in the dark as more than 20 residents contracted the deadly virus.

Similar complaints from around the state prompted Gov. Phil Murphy over the weekend to threaten to publicly disclose COVID-19 numbers of any longterm care facility that failed to communicate with residents and their families within 24 hours.

A Sunrise executive told Morristown Green that Brighton Gardens has followed recommendations of health officials to safeguard residents, and has communicated with families.

McCool’s relatives say staff members tried their best, risking their own health, but received scant guidance from management that seemed more concerned about liability than with lives.

On March 18, Brighton Gardens notified relatives of residents that one resident had tested positive for the coronavirus.

The granddaughter started making calls, first to Florham Park, then to Sunrise’s corporate officers, insisting staff should wear personal protective equipment.

Brighton Gardens in Florham Park. Photo: SunriseSeniorLiving.com

“They told me it was impractical, and was not required by the CDC,” the granddaughter said, referring to the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. “I said you’re going to have an epidemic.”

The family learned of that epidemic two weeks later–by accident.

McCool injured herself last Wednesday in a fall. Her granddaughter was on the phone with her, and overheard an argument between an EMT and the staff.

Staff members said policies prevented them from helping the female EMT load the elderly woman onto a stretcher, the granddaughter recounted.  The EMT balked at bringing a colleague into the facility.

“I’m absolutely not doing that. We don’t have enough PPE (personal protection equipment) to waste it, when we don’t have to. And besides that, we’re not coming with multiple people into a place that is infested with COVID,” the granddaughter quoted the EMT as saying.

When repeated calls failed to shed light on the situation inside, the family reached out to local police and health officials, said McCool’s daughter, Claudia Johnson of Madison.

The family finally received a communication from Brighton Gardens on Friday, disclosing that more than 20 people there were infected.

By then, McCool was in the emergency room at Morristown Medical Center for the second time.

‘Triage tent’ outside Morristown Medical Center, March 14, 2020. Photo by Kevin Coughlin

During her first visit she was treated for injuries from her fall, tested for the coronavirus, and sent back to Florham Park.

McCool was returned to the hospital within hours. Personnel at Brighton Gardens had observed her oxygen saturation level at only 77 percent–and noted the hospital had diagnosed her with pneumonia, the family learned.

On Thursday, test results confirmed McCool had COVID-19. That afternoon, as she was loaded into the ambulance again, staff pointed out her daughter and granddaughter, watching from about 50 feet away in the Brighton Gardens parking lot.

McCool removed her mask and waved back.

“She said, ‘They’re taking me to the hospital to die,'” Claudia Johnson said.

‘THIS IS WHO I AM’

At the emergency room this time, McCool was not under heavy influence of painkillers. “She was able to actually talk to them and express her wishes that she should not have life-saving method things for her,”  Johnson said.

On Friday night, McCool was transferred to the fourth floor of the Atlantic Health Institute, a rehab center that closed last summer. Morristown Medical Center reopened the Mount Kemble Avenue building last week to treat “select adults” with COVID-19.

Ambulance outside the former Atlantic Rehabilitation Institute, which has been reopened to accept COVID-19 patients from Morristown Medical Center, April 2, 2020. Photo by Kevin Coughlin

Alternate care sites, unused wings and empty buildings are opening across New Jersey as hospitals scramble to double their critical care capacity for an anticipated surge of coronavirus patients.

Hotels will be commandeered, if necessary, state Health Commissioner Judith Persichilli said on Monday.

As McCool faded over the weekend, hospice workers at Mount Kemble held a phone to her ear so family members could say goodbye.

“I’m so, so thankful, that they are who they are, and for what they’re doing,”  Johnson, McCool’s daughter, said of the hospice team.

Heroic, added the granddaughter. During one call, she asked a night nurse if she was scared.

Of course, the nurse replied, saying it was hard to keep from crying.

“I have small children at home as well,” the nurse said. “But this is what I do, this is who I am. This is my responsibility, and I want to be here caring for these people.”

PANDEMIC SPREADS THROUGH LONGTERM CARE COMMUNITIES

COVID-19 cases have been confirmed in 159 longterm care facilities in New Jersey, according to Persichilli, the state health commissioner.

Responding to reports of distraught families complaining about secrecy at nursing homes, Persichilli and Gov. Murphy warned over the weekend they would start disclosing the places with confirmed cases if facilities don’t inform families and staffs within 24 hours of a positive test, or a suspected case.

“We are calling today…every longterm care facility or assisted living or dementia home to determine their adherence to our directive to notify their residents, staff and relatives of a resident of an outbreak in their facilities,” the commissioner said Monday at a press briefing.

Approximately 30 residents at Brighton Gardens now have COVID-19, a spokesperson said on Monday.

“This growing number of cases has us all deeply saddened and we remain resolute in our efforts to do all we possibly can to safeguard our residents and team members,” Denise Falco, regional vice president of operations for Sunrise Senior Living, said in a statement to MorristownGreen.com.

Falco said Brighton Gardens has provided written communications to families at least weekly since the first confirmed case on March 18.

“We have also been in frequent communication with families by telephone, and residents have been connecting with their families through FaceTime/Skype sessions,” she said.

The company is working closely with the state health department, is adding nurses, and is hiring an infectious disease physician “to consult with us to confirm that we are taking all possible measures to contain the spread of the illness within our community,” Falco said.

All residents now are being treated with “COVID-19 isolations and precautions.” Staff are wearing masks, gloves and gowns around residents with symptoms; the premises have undergone a professional cleaning; and extra tablets are being provided for virtual visits with families, she said.

Visitation rules were tightened back in February, when infection control measures were reinforced, communal dining was halted, and admission of new members was suspended, Falco said.

“Our team is working to maintain as much normalcy as possible for our residents and families despite this situation,” she concluded, thanking residents, families and staff for their “understanding, cooperation and words of support in recent days. We appreciate the trust they place in us every day, and it is our honor and privilege to serve Morris County families.”

‘HIGHLY INTELLIGENT AND WELL CULTURED’

Mary Bronson McCool loved to travel.

After a successful career as a realtor, she retired to San Diego’s Rancho Bernardo, community and developed services for other seniors, leading tours in Europe, her family said.

Most of her life was spent in California and Texas.  After graduating from the University of California-Berkeley, she spent several years as secretary to the head of the famed Jet Propulsion Laboratory, her family said.

“She was highly intelligent, very articulate, well read and well cultured,” said her granddaughter.

McCool’s second husband, the late Woodford B. “Mac” McCool, was secretary of the Atomic Energy Commission under President Kennedy.

Mary McCool is among more than 1,200 COVID-19 victims in New Jersey so far. Nearly half have been over the age of 80.

Pandemics are tough on the next of kin, too. Even when they agree with social distancing.

“When you can’t actually be at the hospital, so that you can ask the pertinent questions, so that you have an understanding of what’s going on, when all you can do is make a phone call, and then hope that the doctor who’s way over-stressed has a few moments, at some point in time, to call you back and to give you the information…that’s what we’ve been doing for such a long time, trying to deal with phone calls and talking to people and getting information in,” said Claudia Johnson.

“And that I think it’s very difficult,” the daughter said.

Mary McCool also is survived by a son, Andrew Welch of Las Vegas; and by four grandchildren and four great grandchildren

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3 COMMENTS

  1. My grandmother Verna Lapko died 4/8/20 from Covid-19 she was a resident at Brighton Gardens and so much that this article has stated I felt from my soul. This past weekend 10/31/20 I went to Brighton Gardens to retrieve some of her things. As staff tried to enter her room the door would unlock then lock back. The staff tired for at least 15 minutes two staff members and 3 keys and the door would not open. So I asked to try and in seconds the door opened. I looked at them and humbly said my grandmother only wanted family to open her door. It seemed fitting since she died without family by her side. My gma was cremated and buried without family or a service. Her actual Funeral Zoom service was held on 5/24/20. No family should have gone through not being able to have closer for their loved ones. My gma was 95 to end life alone.
    Veronica

  2. Hi Kevin – My grandma is there and I’m concerned about her. You mentioned more than 20 residents tested positive; were they brought to the hospital or local testing centers, or are they doing testing in the nursing home? Is there anyone we can contact for more information?

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