A Vermont woman says that, while the nation's nursing homes are understandably under scrutiny right now, she feels her spouse received top-notch care in one of them -- even though he did contract COVID-19.
Psychologist James "Ram" Ballen died Easter Sunday. He loved dancing, getting outdoors, and spotting animals, said his widow, Anne Black of East Dummerston.
"In many ways -- and I'm going to cry when I say this -- I want to be more like him," Black said of her husband of 16 years. "I want to be as authentic and as real as he was."
Black said Ballen had spent the last four of his 68 years in the memory care unit of Birchwood Terrace in Burlington, Vermont, with Alzheimer's.
After his death, a test showed Ballen had COVID-19, too, Black said.
"He's probably one of the purest beings I have ever met in my life," Black recalled in an interview with NECN and NBC10 Boston Tuesday.
During a dark stretch of the pandemic, the skilled nursing facility lost 18 residents, including Ram, according to numbers provided by the Vermont Department of Health.
As of Tuesday afternoon, Vermont had recorded 53 deaths of people with the coronavirus, health officials said. That means Birchwood's losses were roughly a third of all of Vermont's coronavirus-related deaths these past two months.
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Birchwood's executive director, Alecia DiMario, told NECN and NBC10 Boston that the pace of loss often felt overwhelming.
"We care for these patients, we love these patients," DiMario said. "It's been traumatic, I think ... for the staff."
Birchwood had 60 patients or residents and 31 staff members test positive for coronavirus infection, the Vermont Health Department numbers showed.
DiMario said she is really grateful for displays of support, such as large hearts or hand-drawn signs and messages, that have gone up outside the property in the city's New North End.
Birchwood is also grateful for critical outside help, DiMario added.
"We view it as a privilege," said Bronwyn Becker, a chaplain with UVM Health Network Home Health and Hospice.
UVM Health Network Home Health and Hospice, along with the UVM Medical Center, backed up Birchwood by providing added palliative care staffing during the worst of the crisis.
Now, the effort has turned to ongoing mental health and spiritual support for families and staff at the facility, Becker said.
"It's one thing to lose just one person in your family," Becker observed. "And they have lost a number of people."
Anne Black said she deeply appreciates that additional care and thought it was delivered to her husband compassionately.
She said she still feels Ram's presence whenever she visits part of their property where he'd go to meditate.
"He has just been a beautiful way-shower of what human potential looks like," Black said. "And until I take my last breath, I want to aspire to live my life the way he did."