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'It feels like I lost her' | Family worries about woman at St. Charles nursing home with COVID-19 cases

At Frontier Health & Rehabilitation Center, five residents have died from COVID-19. Dozens of others have tested positive

Editor's note: Since the story first aired and was published, the family told 5 On Your Side Leona Behrens has tested positive for coronavirus.

ST. CHARLES, Mo. — Rich Behrens says it feels like his wife of 52 years is dead.

“I can’t see her, I can’t talk to her,” said the 76-year-old during a phone interview Wednesday from his St. Charles home. “It feels like I lost her, but I didn’t, you know?

“It’s just like it was like a switch was turned off and I have no way of contacting her and that’s what's frustrating.”

Leona Behrens, 75, is among the 100 or so patients living at the Frontier Health & Rehabilitation Center in St. Charles where six residents have died from COVID-19, and an additional 50 residents and 10 employees have tested positive for the virus.

Thursday evening, the family told 5 On Your Side Behrens tested positive for COVID-19 as well.

Most times when her husband calls the nursing home, no one answers. He said he recently got a nurse on the phone, but she hung up on him before he could ask how she was doing.

It’s been almost two weeks since the Behrens family has talked directly to Leona, even though nursing home officials have said in press releases that patients are communicating with loved ones via FaceTime and other cellphone apps with cameras.

She’s had a stroke, so operating a cellphone is too difficult for her. She and the rest of the residents are confined to their rooms, so she cannot use a community phone near the nurse’s station. The home has been shut down to outside visitors, so Rich cannot visit her and take her out on dates.

His daughter, Annette Jansen, went to her mother’s window Wednesday. The blinds left just enough of a gap for her to look inside.

She said her mother looked like her father feared.

She had an oxygen tank next to her bed with a cannula in her nose. She was laying on her side. And she was coughing.

“She looked up at me and didn’t even know who I was,” Jansen recalled during a phone interview Wednesday. “She was so out of it.”

Credit: Behrens family
Rich and Leona Behrens

"Nobody has called me"

A press release from the St. Charles County Health Department quoted Dave Murphy, CEO of Reach LTC, which owns Frontier Heath & Rehabilitation, as saying the nursing home was using its “collaborative technologies” to keep residents in touch with their loved ones.

“Nobody has called me,” Rich Behrens said.

The press release also said residents who have been exposed to the virus are being kept in private rooms.

But Jansen found her mother lying in the same room where -- just weeks ago -- her roommate was taken out after contracting the virus.

“She told me her roommate was up all night coughing and she couldn’t get any sleep,” Jansen recalled.

Leona has a new roommate.

Her husband has no idea if she likes her.

When Jansen saw her mother through the window Wednesday, she said she called the nursing home. A woman picked up and told her that her mother was positive for the virus, but put her on hold. She called back. A man answered and said she wasn’t positive, but he would go check on her. Jansen said she watched as a man walked up to her mother, put the oxygen cannula back in her nose and left the room.

“He never got back on the phone with me,” she said.

She called a third time, and staff members met Jansen outside. They confirmed her mother had been testedbut is believed to be positive given her symptoms. A nurse then went into her mother’s room and told Leona Behrens to look at her daughter through the window. She lifted a finger as if to say hello, Jansen said.

She said she plans to return to her mother’s window as often as she can.

“They’ll probably grow to hate me,” she said. “But they would do the same if it was their mom.”

Last week, Leona waved to her family through her window.

Changes coming?

Other senior facilities in the area also have had COVID-19 cases.

On Monday, another health care facility in St. Charles County, CenterPointe Hospital, confirmed more than 15 staff members and three patients have tested positive for COVID-19. The hospital said it decided to temporarily discontinue admissions, but told employees it would be back to admitting patients on Tuesday.

Grandview Healthcare Center in Washington, Missouri has reported 34 positive cases of COVID-19, Franklin County Presiding Commissioner Tim Brinker said Wednesday.

The nursing home accounts for all but two of the town’s 36 confirmed cases and more than half of Franklin County's 62 cases.

RELATED: Washington, Missouri nursing home accounts for more than half of Franklin County COVID-19 cases

But Frontier has the largest number in one facility in our area.

Rich Behrens put his wife there around Halloween 2018 after he estimates he called paramedics to their home at least a dozen times in a year to help her after falling.

His son, Tony Behrens, said his father struggled with the decision.

“It was certainly not an easy choice for him to come to the conclusion that our mom needed extra help that he couldn’t provide,” he said. “Since she’s been there, her health has improved but when something like this happens, you question yourself, ‘Did I make the right choice? Is she in the right spot? This is one of the nursing homes that seems to be struggling in the state and it just so happens to be the one we found for her. My dad’s not the type to be blaming himself, but we’re trying to watch out for his emotional health through all of this, too.”

Tony, a Colonel in the Army, is in Texas right now. He said he believes the nurses and staff are doing all they can to care for the residents. But he faults the ownership for the unnecessary additional suffering families and residents are experiencing because there is no communication.

All outside visits and non-essential interactions with the public have been eliminated as have group activities at the home, according to a written statement from Craig Workman, spokesman for Frontier Health & Rehabilitation. The dining rooms are closed.

“Frontier is grateful for the outpouring of donations, volunteers and other support received from the community during this crisis,” he wrote Monday.

On Tuesday, Workman said the facility is now testing residents who may have been exposed, even if they are not showing symptoms.

He also added that if any tests come back positive, that resident will be moved to a single room and quarantined. Also, all rooms, floors and common areas are being sanitized “multiple times" per day using EPA certified disinfectant, hard soap and paper products.

RELATED: 2 more employees at St. Charles senior facility test positive for COVID-19

The facility announced Wednesday that it would be sending patients’ families a newsletter and putting families in touch.

“We are fulfilling requests received from residents and/or family members to be put in touch with their loved ones if they do not have access to a phone,” Workman wrote. “Our staff members use FaceTime with residents on their iPads or provide their personal cell phone to a resident to make the connection.

“In some cases, the staff member will hold her cellphone to the ear of a resident, particularly those with dementia, as they talk to their family member.”

But, he said because of “our time constraints” and schedules of key family contacts, “We have not been able to get around to every resident with this service as yet.”

“However, we are now developing a proactive outreach schedule for every resident that wants to contact their family and then to arrange that contact," Workman wrote. “We will be working this into our staff’s other duties over the next few days.”

Annette Jansen said her mother, who also suffers from some dementia, would never know to ask for such a service.

Rich Behrens is his wife’s legal guardian. He said he hasn’t left his house in weeks – abiding by the stay-at-home order and fearing infection himself.

He has a cellphone. And a landline.

Neither has rung with a Frontier staffer on the other end, offering him a chance to talk to his wife.

“It can be stressful,” he said. “I've tried to keep my mind occupied, but I can't stop thinking about, you know ...”

He didn’t finish his sentence.

After speaking with the family, they later confirmed with 5 On Your Side that Behrens tested positive for the coronavirus.

Credit: Annette Jansen
Leona Behrens posed with her grandchildren, Paige and Grant, outside of her window last week

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