One by one, 12 residents of the Maine Veterans’ Home in Scarborough have fallen in one of the state’s deadliest outbreaks of COVID-19, the illness caused by the coronavirus that has sickened and killed thousands of long-term care patients across the United States.

Within the last month, 11 veterans – sailors, gunmen, mechanics – and a veteran’s spouse have died without family members allowed at their bedsides for their final moments. Without color guards or taps played at memorial services postponed to some future date.

Brian Fenton McAvoy, 77, died April 19 at the Maine Veterans’ Home in Scarborough after falling ill with coronavirus.

Mike Hugo, 83, of Brunswick died on April 16. He was a demolitions expert in the Marine Corps who later worked as a congressional staff member in Washington, D.C.

Brian McAvoy, 77, of Windham died on April 19. He served in the Coast Guard and worked for the Otis Elevator Co. for 35 years as a mechanic and construction superintendent.

Bob Fleury, 94, of Portland died on April 21. He served in the Navy during World War II and worked for the National Weather Service for 33 years.

The experience has been especially hard on Ron Fleury, the youngest of Bob Fleury’s four sons. He oversaw his father’s care for the last several years, moving in with him two years ago. After a serious fall in January, his father moved into the veterans home. Then the pandemic hit.

“They started the lockdown and we never were allowed to visit him after that,” Ron Fleury said. “I don’t know when we’ll be able to have a memorial service. For me, there’s no closure. That’s my reality.”

Robert Fleury died at the Maine Veterans’ Home in Scarborough on April 21 due to complications from COVID-19.

Many people have been touched by the outbreak at the veterans home, one of six long-term care facilities across Maine that are operated by an independent nonprofit approved by the Legislature in 1977. The other veterans homes haven’t reported outbreaks.

The high-profile losses at the well-regarded Scarborough facility have drawn unusual attention to the nondescript one-story brick complex off Route 1 that thousands drive by daily, often without noticing.

The grief brought by the pandemic has rippled out across southern Maine and beyond, reminding people of the veterans’ past contributions and the critical work being done by their caregivers during this crisis. More than 32 residents and 21 staff members have tested positive for COVID-19, inspiring concern and support in the wider community.

“It’s extremely sad,” said Sam Kelley, 75, a Scarborough businessman whose neighbor, Jim Paras, died at the veterans home on April 20 of illnesses complicated by COVID-19. Paras, 92, was a former podiatrist who dropped out of high school at 17 to join the Navy during World War II.

“The veterans home holds a special place for many people, especially veterans,” said Kelley, an Army veteran who served in Vietnam. “If I had to go someplace, I’d want it to be there. But the veterans homes have been hit worse than a lot of places. It almost seems they’ve given so much already, this is too much.”

James Peter Paras (born Paraskevas) died from Lewy body dementia and COVID-19 on April 20 at the Maine Veterans’ Home in Scarborough.

Kelley referenced recent reports that at least 59 residents have died at the Long Island State Veterans Home in New York and 83 residents have died at the Soldiers’ Home in Holyoke, Massachusetts. They are among the deadliest coronavirus outbreaks at U.S. long-term care facilities.

COVID-19 has swept through senior congregate housing across the globe, targeting people living in close quarters who are over age 65 and have underlying health issues. In the United States, nearly 51,000 cases and over 10,000 deaths have been reported at more than 4,000 nursing homes and assisted-living facilities, according to the Kaiser Family Foundation.

In Maine, six long-term care facilities have reported outbreaks, with at least 159 cases and 32 deaths confirmed among residents and at least 84 cases among employees, according to the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention. The facilities have reported no deaths among staff members. At least 1,152 cases and 56 deaths have been confirmed in a statewide population of 1.3 million.

The pandemic’s heavy toll on veterans also troubles Adria Horn, vice chairwoman of the board of trustees for the Maine Veterans’ Homes. She’s a West Point graduate who was active-duty Army for a decade, including deployments to Iraq and Afghanistan.

Norman R. Jordan, Jr., 85, passed away on April 19 at the Maine Veterans’ Home in Scarborough.

Horn knows the family separation and bunker isolation that many veterans experienced while in training and on the front lines.

“I see the irony of these veterans having the same kind of experience at the end of their lives,” Horn said.

She also understands the heartbreak that the 230 employees at the Scarborough veterans home are dealing with right now.

“I think there’s a sense of no control,” Horn said. “Most of the people who have it are asymptomatic. Fighting an unseen enemy is absolutely overwhelming.”

Despite his father’s passing, Ron Fleury said he believes his father received great care at the Scarborough veterans home. “We would like to thank the staff at the Maine Veterans Home for their care of our father in his final months,” the Fleury family wrote in their father’s obituary.

The 120-bed Scarborough facility has the highest possible rating of “much above average” on Medicare’s Nursing Home Compare website, which tracks health inspections, staffing levels, resident complaints and other quality measures. The facility provides skilled rehabilitation and long-term care to veterans and, when space is available, veterans’ spouses and parents of military members who died in battle.

The veterans home has continued to provide excellent care throughout the pandemic, according to Jim Paras’ wife, Taxia, and daughter, Mari Anne Paraskevas. They praised the facility for its personalized care, cleanliness, open communication and heightened efforts to prevent illness before and during the outbreak.

Joseph Zagrosky, 68, of South Berwick passed away April 15 at the Scarborough Veterans Home from the coronavirus and other complications.

After Paras contracted the virus, he had a dedicated nurse that he shared with one other patient, Taxia Paras said. The facility began preparing for a potential outbreak long before it happened, so the staff had masks and other personal protective gear when they needed it, Paraskevas said.

Many staff members stayed in nearby hotels to limit their exposure to the public and their families, Paraskevas said, and Jim’s caregivers called regularly with updates on his condition, including Maureen Carland, the home’s administrator.

“You could hear it in her voice, how torn up she was,” Paraskevas said. “What are you going to do? You’re fighting an enemy you can’t see. They’re so caring and on top of things professionally. If my dad was going to be anywhere, he was in the best place he could be in a bad situation.”

Carland said her staff has been grieving the loss of residents to COVID-19 for weeks as they strive to continue providing professional care. Many form close ties with the veterans, who become as close as friends or family members.

“Our staff members are tremendously committed to our mission of caring for those who served,” Carland said. “During this crisis they have made many personal sacrifices to ensure America’s heroes are cared for with exceptional compassion and dignity. … We have come to truly appreciate how cohesive of a team we have here.”

John “Jack” Towne, died on April 17 of COVID-19 at the Maine Veterans’ Home in Scarborough.

On a personal level, Carland said, battling this pandemic has been the most difficult challenge of her career.

“The impact of this highly virulent virus, especially on our elders, is heart-wrenching,” she said. “Much like many of the staff, I have barely seen my family during the last month to limit potential exposure to our residents and to stay closer to the home so I am available 24 hours a day.”

Carland said she and her staff take some solace in knowing they have been able to contain the virus to one unit. The home has been closed to visitors since mid-March, with residents limited to communicating with loved ones via phone calls, FaceTime, Zoom and other non-contact means. Staffing shortfalls caused by the illness have been covered by other employees or workers from outside agencies.

“(We) are doing everything they can to prevent its spread and save lives,” Carland said. “While that is a feat we can be proud of, at the end of the day, every day, we are deeply saddened that this is happening.”

Unfortunately, during the pandemic, residents haven’t been allowed to gather and form a military color guard to pay tribute when a deceased veteran is carried out of the facility.

“Our veterans have a special bond and camaraderie, so any loss is difficult,” Carland said. “It is a ritual that both residents and staff have great respect for. It is with a heavy heart that we have temporarily suspended this time-honored practice for the safety of the residents.”

Norman R. Jordan, Jr., 85, passed away on April 19 at the Maine Veterans’ Home in Scarborough.

Carland said the home will hold a celebration of the lives of veterans lost during the pandemic as soon as it is safe to do so.

One bright spot has been the outpouring of support that the veterans home has experienced as the staff and residents have fought the virus. Family and community members have posted Facebook comments, sent cards and letters, and donated money for staff meals.

“We are overwhelmed by these heartwarming messages,” Carland said. “Family members have continually asked what they can do for our staff and it is very humbling to know that they recognize our tremendous efforts to care for their loved ones during this time.”

A large dose of community support has come from The Rock Church on Gorham Road in Scarborough. Church members have delivered snack packs to the veterans home and displayed a 3-by-8-foot banner in front of the church that says, “Our hearts are with the Maine Veterans Home. We are praying for you.”

Paul J. Robie, 78, passed away April 23 at the Scarborough Veterans Home where he had been residing the last year and a half.

“Several of our members are connected with the veterans home, either because they work there or they have family members who live there, and we want them to know we care,” said Sue Davis, the church’s outreach coordinator.

On Sunday, church members plan to hold a prayer vigil in cars parked across the street from the veterans home and they will install lawn signs along the driveway with a special message for employees: “Thank you for boldly serving those who boldly served us.”

Davis has some understanding of what the workers at the veterans home are going through. She’s a former hospice nurse who has worked at the veterans home in the past and she has volunteered there more recently. Her helper in the support effort is Kristen Beers, the church’s events team leader, who works as a registered nurse at the veterans home.

“It’s brave of them to go in there, day after day, to care for people,” Davis said. “I know how much Kristen has to draw on her strength and her faith to be able to do her job and face that risk every day. She is a hero.”

 

Sue Davis, left, and Kristen Beers with the banner The Rock Church has displayed in support of the Maine Veterans’ Home in Scarborough. Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Staff Photographer

Related Headlines


Only subscribers are eligible to post comments. Please subscribe or to participate in the conversation. Here’s why.

Use the form below to reset your password. When you've submitted your account email, we will send an email with a reset code.