On her 91st birthday, Jean Powell waved to family members from the window of her hospital room, as her care team inside at Encompass Health Rehabilitation Hospital of Toms River showered her with cards and gifts to commemorate the occasion.

Not only did Powell have her 91 years to celebrate, but she also recovered from COVID-19, a significant feat for someone her age. The day after that birthday celebration, Powell returned to the assisted living facility she calls home after weeks in the hospital battling the virus.

“I could have just cried when I saw her on her birthday,” said Kim Wedemeyer, Powell’s daughter. “She showed me her card and was just so happy. She said it was the best birthday of her whole life. When I took her home, they brought out a wheelchair, and she said, ‘no, I can walk.’”

Weeks before her April 26 birthday, family members weren’t so sure she would be walking again.

With her assisted living facility on lockdown since March, Wedemeyer and her family hadn’t had in-person contact with Powell for weeks, but she sensed her mother wasn’t feeling herself in early April. Then the coughing started, and she had a fever.

“She was sent to the hospital, and they told me she had pneumonia, and they were testing for COVID-19,” Wedemeyer recalled. “It was terrifying because I couldn’t be there, and she has dementia. I’m her familiar face. I can talk her down.”

Wedemeyer said her mother was often too weak to talk on the phone and has little memory of her time in the acute hospital, which she said is likely more from the impact of the virus than her dementia. 

Road to recovery

After a week in the acute hospital she began showing signs of improvement. However, as it is with many patients recovering from COVID-19, Powell was not strong enough to return home. Instead, she was admitted to Encompass Health Toms River to regain her strength.

Located in New Jersey, one of the hardest hit states by COVID-19, Encompass Health Toms River opened a COVID unit to treat patients like Powell, who were extremely weak and needed inpatient rehabilitation to regain their strength.

“One of my nursing assistants described these patients as being like little kittens; they’re so weak they can’t even hold the phone to talk to their families,” said Coleen Rossi, the chief nursing officer at Encompass Health Toms River. “They’ve been in the hospital a long time. In addition to therapy, we’re doing a lot of those little things. Their hair might be matted or they might not have had a real shower. A lot is that personal touch.”

While at Encompass Health Toms River, Powell received therapy from physical, occupational and speech therapists, who helped her recover from the physical and cognitive impairments caused by the virus. 

Although the patients in the COVID unit are recovering, Rossi said they assume are all still positive, so the unit is on lockdown and separated from other patients and staff. Therapy takes place in the room or inside the unit, and visitors are not allowed, either. Rossi said they did erect a tent outside the unit for primary caregiver training, an integral part of inpatient rehabilitation. 

Rising to the occasion

Wedemeyer said one of the most difficult parts of this pandemic is not being able to see her mom at her assistant living facility or visit her when she was in the hospital. At Encompass Health Toms River, she said her mother’s care team took great care to keep her informed and to keep her connected. 

“Her case manager called me that first day and said if you ever need anything call me,” she said. “I never had to call her. She would call me. And I know the nursing staff is under horrendous pressure, but if mom ever needed anything, they were there. One of them called me so we could facetime I didn’t ask her to do that; It was wonderful. They really put my heart at ease and were like an extension of my family”

Rossi said the entire staff at the hospital, and particularly the COVID unit, is working hard to comfort patients when their loved ones cannot.

If there’s anything positive from the pandemic, Rossi said, it’s how it’s brought staff together to think of creative ways to work together to help patients.

“I have an aunt in a nursing home who tested positive for COVID-19, so I get it,” she said. “We’re trying to do for these patients what their families can’t. It’s really touched and overwhelmed me, some of these things the staff has done.”

Back at home

After 10 days at Encompass Health Toms River and one of her best birthday celebrations yet, Powell was strong enough to return home to her assisted living facility. 

Wedemeyer and family still can’t visit, as assisted living facilities are not allowing visitors at this time, but they talk to Powell daily and say she’s doing extremely well. 

“It’s amazing how well she’s doing,” she said. “It’s all been so scary when you can’t just be there with them to hold their hand, but she had a miraculous recovery.” 

Sign Up