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'All in this together' | Women share experiences with assisted living facilities and COVID-19 vaccine anticipation

Residents at Texas’ long-term care facilities are expected to start receiving the vaccine starting Dec. 28. Facilities have partnered with three pharmacies.

SAN ANTONIO, Texas — Editor’s note: this story was first published December 23, 2020 ahead of the vaccine distribution at long term care facilities in Texas. 

Like a child waiting to open a holiday gift, Lyn Heffernan longs for the day that her family gets the COVID-19 vaccine.

She participated in the Pfizer vaccine study.

“If I could be a part of the solution, I wanted, there's so little else that I can do, I wanted to do that,” Heffernan said.

RELATED: 'Wheel and spoke' | Pharmacies teaming up with CDC to vaccinate our most vulnerable; here's how it's being done in Texas

She said she had a mild ache after the first dose and a 24-hour bed rest after the second.

“But the next day, I woke up with so much energy,” Heffernan said. Now, she’s ready for her mom to get the doses. Her mom, 95, lives in assisted living at Franklin Park Sonterra in San Antonio.

“It was hard for her to get used to living in an apartment by herself. And then, but we always were picking her up, taking her out to lunch, going shopping, bringing her back. And then all of a sudden she wasn't allowed to go out of the building,” Heffernan said

COVID-19 confined everyone.

“They have done such a fantastic job here with activities and making sure that she gets out of her apartment and takes part in all the activities,” Heffernan said.

It doesn’t make the distance apart easy.

“I can't tell you how many times, even now, it's a pretty day and I go, ‘I'm going to go take mom for lunch. Oh, Drats, I can't.’ Or even coming here now that I can come into her apartment. It was a beautiful day last week and I thought my mom's not confined to her apartment anymore. I want to take her out to the garden so that we can spend some time outside. ‘Oh, no, wait a minute. When I walk in the building, I can only go to her apartment. I can't walk around with her,’ So, you know, it's hard,” Heffernan said.

“Staying safe is far better than being in a place where you're at risk,” Karen "CoCo" Milliren, a Franklin Park Sonterra nurse, said.

Milliren started working at Franklin Park 10 years ago.

"I'm more aware of things than ever before and try and be a good educator and advocate even for those outside the building. It's just something that they don't want to see in a hospital. I worked in the hospital years ago and I know what ICU is like ... I live this. I try to live this day by day to keep very much to myself, very safe when I do go out, grocery store, whatever, little overly cautious. But, at this point, it's paid off being safe and virus-free. So, we're kind of all in this together," Milliren said.

Milliren knows the toll of distance.

“I've not seen my family on the east coast in a year,” Milliren said.

As a widow, she knows what it’s like living alone.

“My residents here and families are my extended family, so I've never felt alone or really sad. It kind of works both ways. They’re family to me, I try to be family to them,” Milliren said.

Heffernan and her mom spent seven months apart at the start of the pandemic. It wasn’t safe and tight restrictions kept all families out.

“From March until October, it's a long time,” Heffernan said.

A long time for her, she said, but not as hard for her mother.

“She doesn't understand or remember enough to be scared or frightened of [COVID-19]. Dementia is just protecting her enough,” Heffernan said.

Heffernan and her sister trade the one day per week they are allowed to visit.

“It was so wonderful to be able to be in the same room with her and touch her hands. It's just so different to be able to see her in person, so we just do it as often as time allows. They can't have the building full of everybody at the same time. So, we just have to be understanding,” Heffernan said.

“There were many months that our residents ate their meals in their rooms, and we slowly but surely were able to figure out a way to do this social distancing where we can have them down in our dining rooms, music, TV, have them walk the halls, at least for the exercise,” Milliren said.

The staff carries cell phones and tablets so families can connect through video.

“Just keeping a good, upbeat, positive attitude that we're all in this together and we're here. And my residents, even when we started wearing masks, they knew our voices and we just tried to keep that sense of humor up,” Milliren said.

Milliren expects the facility to get their doses this week.

“We call her at least every other day. It's been wonderful since we finally got permission from the governor to be able to make appointments to come in and see her for a couple of hours a week. She loves that. We don't have to do anything. We just sometimes just sit and she just looks at me and says, 'it's so nice to see you in real life,'” Heffernan said.

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