Worth the wait — mom, daughter, grandson reunite in person as nursing home reopens visitation

Local Coronavirus Coverage

JOHNSON CITY, Tenn. (WJHL) — Mary Willits had frequent visitors to her room at NHC’s nursing home in Johnson City — until last March.

Thursday afternoon, the dam broke and the pent up need for face-to-face interaction was met as Susan and Carter Disantis — Willits’ daughter and grandson — spent a precious 30 minutes with her.

The best part of it all?

“Just us all being together,” Disantis said.

“That’s the best thing for me, ’cause I love me family and I miss them,” Willits echoed.

Mary Willits, left, and her daughter Susan Disantis during their first in-person visit in a year at the Johnson City nursing home where Willits lives.

The visit was regimented and detailed, a far cry from what the family was accustomed to prior to COVID.

“Mom would usually get several visits a week,” Disantis said. “I’d go about once a week and the kids (she has three) and my husband visited pretty often too.

“The other two are at college and they’ll be able to see her when they get to come home to visit again.”

In addition, Willits’ and Disantis’ church, Grandview Christian, has a calling group that visited Willits once a week. Until COVID, that usually involved little more than a check in at the front desk and a self-guided walk through the place.

Disantis said her mom has some memory issues, so phone contact leaves something to be desired in more ways than one.

“Just being able to check in, see how she’s doing with her memory, there’s really no other way to do it than in person,” she said. “She can’t remember things and I help her with that, so it’s good to be able to get eyes on her, make sure she’s ok.”

This visit started with Disantis getting an appointment through an online calendar app on NHC Johnson City’s website. Then she and Carter arrived 30 minutes early so staff could conduct a rapid test.

After a semi-anxious wait for results, back they went, escorted past busy staff in masks and other PPE. Hugs were discouraged and it’s no wonder.

Carter Disantis, one of Mary Willits’ three grandchildren, was able to join in Thursday’s visit and see his grandmother for the first time in a year.

Nursing homes have been devastated, nationally and locally, by COVID. In fact, Willits’ facility had one of Northeast Tennessee’s most severe COVID outbreaks.

Her symptoms were very mild, but Willits was one of nearly 90 residents to test positive during the outbreak. More than 25 didn’t survive. More than 70 staff also contracted the virus.

The weekly toll of new cases and new resident deaths has plummeted since mid-January.

The federal long-term care vaccination partnership with CVS and Walgreens has reached every facility, and those two companies list a total of almost 105,000 doses administered. The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) shows 30,558 people in Tennessee long-term care facilities are fully vaccinated.

But Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) guidelines take precedence, and those include a prohibition on visits in counties with COVID test positivity rates above 10 percent.

That meant that a sister nursing home in Sullivan County remained closed to visitation, as the region’s most populous county continues to log positivity rates in double figures. Any facility with a case among residents are staff within the past two weeks is also closed to visitation.

“That’s a blessing for sure,” Disantis said of all the stars aligning. “It’s a day to day update whether we can come in or not.”

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