Maria Reddaway’s daughter thought if her mother could survive growing up in Nazi Germany, she could survive the COVID-19 pandemic, too.
But earlier this month, Reddaway, 91, became one of 13 residents to die from the disease in an outbreak at Island Nursing Home in Deer Isle, which has become the site of Maine’s fourth largest outbreak at a long-term care facility. All 62 residents as well as 31 staff members have tested positive for COVID-19 since the outbreak began in late November.
Maria Mishkind said her mother weathered tough times as a girl growing up in Germany. Reddaway became a teenager during World War II, and lost all her teeth due to malnutrition.
“She’s tough,” said Mishkind, who lives in Sedgwick. “I thought if she could make it through that, she could make it through this.”
As Allied forces advanced into Germany toward the end of the war, U.S. troops arrived in Reddaway’s village of Goldbach in the spring of 1945, just before the Battle of Aschaffenburg. A U.S. Army soldier drove a tank into Reddaway’s yard, frightening the girl and her family, and motioned for Reddaway to come toward him. Her mother screamed “please don’t hurt her,” Mishkind said, but the soldier handed her a large wedge of cheese to take to her family.
“She knew then they were there to help her,” she said of her mother’s attitude toward the U.S. troops.
At one point, an American fighter plane was shot down in her town, Mishkind said. Reddaway and her friends were impressed by the surviving pilot, who sported a bomber jacket and a gold watch.
A few U.S. soldiers lived in Reddaway’s house for a while, but were always very respectful to the girl and her family, Mishkind said. The Americans gave them food, drink and security while a few miles away in Aschaffenburg, the desperate Nazis were using hangings to motivate German soldiers and citizens to fight the Allied advance.
After the war, Reddaway married an American soldier and then immigrated to the U.S. in 1952 with him and their son, Mishkind’s older brother.
She did not speak English at the time, but was immersed in American culture living at Fort Benning in Georgia. She learned to speak English and cook turkey at Thanksgiving — though the first time she neglected to take out the bag of giblets inside the bird before she put it in the oven, her daughter said.
She became an American citizen in 1969.
“She loved America,” Mishkind said. “The horrific Nazi tactics, coupled with mom’s great personal wartime losses versus the generosity and respect shown to her by the American soldiers forever cemented an image of the American savior in her mind. Mom left this earth as one of the most patriotic Americans I have ever known.”
Reddaway moved in with her daughter and son-in-law in 2008, when they lived in Florida, as her dementia became apparent. She moved with them to Maine a few years ago, and had lived at Island Nursing Home for two years. She couldn’t communicate well, though she could speak, Mishkind said.
When the nursing home went into lockdown in March, after Maine saw its first COVID-19 cases, Mishkind said her mother otherwise was in relatively good health and remained healthy through Thanksgiving.
Mishkind resumed her visits to the nursing home this past summer, though they took place outside and she and her mother had to stay on opposite sides of a fence. Then on Thanksgiving, a few days after the nursing home detected its first positive COVID test, the nursing home told Mishkind her mother also had tested positive.
“It was devastating,” said Mishkind, whose husband is a doctor at Northern Light Blue Hill Hospital. “I knew what the impacts could be. They had done so well.”
The nursing home had done what it could to keep the coronavirus out, Mishkind said, letting only staff come and go from the building and screening both staff and residents. The home passed a state inspection in June aimed at determining whether it was following rules meant to prevent the spread of COVID-19.
Nursing home officials have said that the outbreak occurred after an asymptomatic staff member unknowingly introduced the disease into the facility.
Direct visits were no longer allowed after the nursing home got its first positive test result, but Mishkind said the staff kept her “well informed” on how her mom was doing and helped them keep in touch, connecting mother and daughter on the phone or via video chat.
Reddaway initially was asymptomatic when she tested positive, but later developed gastro-intestinal discomfort, Mishkind said. She then became lethargic and slept a lot, but appeared comfortable.
She died in her sleep just after midnight on Wednesday, Dec. 9.
“She wasn’t struggling,” her daughter said. “She wasn’t in any pain.”
Janet Rice, a Deer Isle resident, said it was an adjustment to visit her husband, Marshall Rice Jr., at the nursing home after it went into lockdown in March. He, too, suffered from dementia, she said, and couldn’t communicate on the phone. She resorted to sending him cards, which the staff set aside for three days before giving them to him as a precaution against spreading the disease.
Rice said she started visiting her husband again in June, having her temperature taken when she arrived and then staying 6 feet apart and wearing a mask during their outside visits. Her husband suffered from Parkinson’s disease and died of kidney failure in early September — more than two months before the nursing home received its first positive test result.
“I’m thankful he passed before it got to this point,” she said. It was “very difficult” not being able to visit in the spring and then having to socially distance during her half-hour visits this summer, she added.
“I just pray for them,” Rice said of the staff. “I just can’t imagine what it’s like as a caregiver, under these conditions. It’s a hard enough job as it is.”
Some residents have lived there for many years, and some employees are related, representing multiple generations of area families who have worked at the 70-bed nursing home and assisted living center, said Matthew Trombley, Island Nursing Home’s executive director.
“It’s like losing our own grandmother or grandfather,” he said of losing residents. “We have staff who have taken it very hard.”
As challenging as the situation has been — the nursing home even got training and cleaning assistance from the Maine National Guard for a week after the outbreak was first detected — things are improving, Trombley said. He expects all who have survived to test negative in the coming days.
The nursing home has passed all of its inspections and site visits, Trombley noted. He said he doesn’t know what else it could have done to prevent the disease from making its way inside.
“How do you stop something you can’t detect?” Trombley said. “It came and it came very quick, and it is leaving very quick.”