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‘If it gets me to him, I’ll do whatever I need to do’

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Mary Daniel took a job as a dishwasher in the kitchen at her husband's Florida nursing home in order to see him throughout the coronavirus pandemic. (Photo: Mary Daniel)
Mary Daniel took a job as a dishwasher in the kitchen at her husband’s Florida nursing home in order to see him throughout the coronavirus pandemic. (Photo: Mary Daniel)

Since Steve Daniel moved into Rosecastle at Deerwood, a senior care facility in Jacksonville, Fla., last July, his wife, Mary Daniel, has made it her mission to visit every single day.

“My job was to sort of get him ready for bed,” Daniel, 57, told Yahoo Life of her husband, who at 66, has early onset Alzheimer’s disease. “We’d get him changed from his day clothes, and we would settle in and lay in bed and watch TV and relax together.”

But when the coronavirus pandemic struck, nursing homes quickly became an early target for the virus. At least 54,000 residents and workers at nursing homes and other elder-care facilities have died of COVID-19 in the United States, according to data compiled by the New York Times in late June, as Yahoo has previously reported. Unable to see her husband for 114 days, Daniel knew she she had to do something.

“I counted every single one of them,” says Daniel, who owns her own medical billing patient advocacy firm. “I would email the governor every single day. On the 100th day, I did a huge email to let him know ‘we are counting the days.’”

In close communication with the team at her husband’s facility, Daniel had asked what she could possibly do to see her husband.

“I had originally at the very beginning, sent an email to the director asking, ‘What can I do? How can I get in there? Can I be a volunteer?’ We’ve always raised service dogs, so I have a puppy service dog in training, so I thought, ‘Can bring the dog?’ It was just desperate emails to say, ‘Please tell me what can I do,’” she shares.

While Daniel attempted to do a visit through a window, it didn’t work out.

“We did that twice, and he just cried,” Daniel said. “He couldn’t understand what was going on. They don’t understand.”

Knowing how desperate Daniel was to see her husband, a staff member at Rosecastle at Deerwood reached out, explaining that they had a part-time job available, which would grant her access to the facility.

“They said, ‘Are you interested? And I said, ‘Yes, I’m very interested!’ ‘Well, it’s a dishwasher role.’ I said, ‘Well OK, you don’t have anything in activities?’” she recounts.

But when they told Daniel that a dishwasher role was the only job available, she didn’t question it for a second.

“Well if dishes it is, then I’ll take it,” she recalls saying. “I told them I’m going to be the best dishwasher they’ve ever had.”

Before Daniel could be hired, she had to undergo a series of tests, including a drug test, background check and several hours of video education on topics ranging from food safety to HIV to the stages of Alzheimer’s disease, as well as a new section for COVID.

“It was quite impressive,” Daniel tells Yahoo Life. “It gave me insight into what the staff has to do. I had never known the type of training the staff had to go through.”

Steve and Mary Daniel at Rosecastle at Deerwood. (Photo: Mary Daniel)
Steve and Mary Daniel at Rosecastle at Deerwood. (Photo: Mary Daniel)

Daniel eventually got the green light and is now an employee. While her husband can’t fully communicate verbally, it’s clear he finds great relief in knowing that his wife is in his presence.

“All he knows is that I’m there and I’m standing in front of him, and it brings a smile to his face,” says Daniel. “He just sort of relaxes. The anxiety is so high for everyone, including the staff. I see him relax when I’m with him. That’s the beauty of this.”

Using her own experience, Daniel is helping other folks advocate for themselves and their families in similar situations. She’s organizing via a Facebook page, and encourages others to start their own pages so they can unite in their own state and take their particular concerns to their governors and representatives. And of course, she’s still working her shifts in the kitchen at Rosecastle.

“It’s hard work. I’m mopping the floor and cleaning the grill. I don’t want people to tell me I’m not here to work. This is legit and it needs to be legit. I want to do a really good job while I’m there,” says Daniel. “I’m happy to do it. It’s different, it’s not what I’ve done in a long time. But if it gets me to him, I’ll do whatever I need to do.”

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For the latest coronavirus news and updates, follow along at https://news.yahoo.com/coronavirus. According to experts, people over 60 and those who are immunocompromised continue to be the most at risk. If you have questions, please reference the CDC’s and WHO’s resource guides. 

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