Nursing home staff could not have coped with the number of deaths they dealt with during the Covid-19 pandemic without counselling and other supports, a care home group has said.
The privately owned Brookhaven Group had to cope with Covid-19 outbreaks at three of its five nursing homes. Vaccinations meant that outbreaks at two homes – Abbeybreaffy in Castlebar, Co Mayo and Teaghlach Uilinn in Moycullen, Co Galway – were not as severe and almost all residents and staff recovered. There was one death in each of those homes.
A third home, Droimnín in Stradbally, Co Laois, had an outbreak before vaccinations began, leading to the deaths of 18 residents over 20 days in January.
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The outbreaks left the group scrambling to find replacement staff from within, agencies and the HSE as illness and precautionary isolation led to shortages.
Bernadette Brennan, who was acting "person in charge" at Droimnín during the outbreak, said it was "the most difficult time" she had experienced in her professional life, having worked in nursing homes for 14 years.
“Nothing prepared me for the scale of the sickness and the amount of care we had to do. It has impacted hugely on us,” she said. “I could get very emotional and at times I have gotten very emotional. I have had great people within my circle who I was able to ventilate to and take great comfort in.”
Ms Brennan said the impact of the end-of-life care on staff was “very tough” and left morale very low. She said staff formed guards of honour for every resident who died.
“The most important thing was making sure that a son or a daughter or whoever was sitting at the bedside with their resident. We had no resident in Droimnín who died alone,” she said.
Eveline Sheeran, general manager at Brookhaven's Talbot Lodge home in Malahide, Co Dublin, returned to work "on the floor" as a nurse to help manage the virus outbreaks.
“The staff were just phenomenal. You had people knowingly coming into a situation where they were putting themselves at risk and they did that for the love of the residents,” she said.
Among those affected was Deirdre O’Callaghan, director of care at Droimnín, who contracted the virus in the early stages of the outbreak. Acting directors of care at Abbeybreaffy, Selda Babu, and at Teaghlach Uilinn, Saju Joseph, managed their respective homes during their outbreaks.
Bore the brunt
Ms Sheeran said the “devastating impact” on staff and residents who lost friends would be felt for some time. She believes that residents and staff in nursing homes and healthcare workers across the health service who cared for people during the pandemic will require psychological support in the long term.
Nursing homes bore the brunt of the pandemic; some 2,053, or 63 per cent, of 3,264 Covid-19 deaths linked to outbreaks were in nursing homes.
“I don’t think our staff would have coped if they hadn’t been offered counselling, especially at Droimnín,” she said, noting that psychiatrists and psychologists have contacted Talbot Lodge on a number of occasions offering to help those who need it.
Reflecting on the past year, Brookhaven chief executive Gearóíd Brennan said the group “held our breath” throughout. Robust infection prevention and control measures managed to prevent cases turning into outbreaks until the third wave, he said, before infection rates in the community “skyrocketed” after restrictions were eased last December.
“It was inevitable that it was going to hit more private nursing homes,” he said.
Some 90 per cent of residents were infected at Droimnín after the first positive test on December 29th. About 50 per cent of staff tested positive. Had vaccinations happened earlier, things might have turned out different, he believes.
“One month earlier and the outcome would have been completely different . . . In my 17 years in the sector, it was the most challenging and difficult period of time I have ever seen.”