A little bit of a virus was going around, so the dining room was closed and the patients were eating in their rooms.
“Nothing was unusual, nothing was concerning,” Ruth Gelbach remembered. “Until later in the day.”
That’s when staffers at Life Care Center of Kirkland started to rush around. Nurses and physicians who were scheduled to speak with Gelbach and seven other Lake Washington Institute of Technology (LWTech) students were suddenly unavailable. Through the window that overlooked a courtyard, and on the other side of the building, Gelbach could see nurses gathered around certain patients.
“Everyone was running around,” Gelbach remembered. “The staff was trying really hard to be there for the patients. We could tell something was going on.”
After a day of helping a nurse get patients up, dressed, fed and cleaned, Gelbach and the other students gathered around 2 p.m. for a debrief with one of their teachers. That’s when an administrator pulled the teacher aside.
“You should not come back next week,” the administrator said.
That was Friday, Feb. 28, 2020. The following morning, news would break that the novel coronavirus had claimed its first death in the United States — at Life Care Center, where Gelbach had just spent the day.
In a matter of days, she would test positive for the virus, as would Theresa Cadondon, a LWTech physical therapy student who was exposed by one of her professors who had been working with patients at Life Care.
The school would be thrown into crisis mode, concerned about putting its students and staff in danger of illness, or death, while not having the information it needed to make decisions about holding classes.
LWTech President Amy Morrison remembered learning about the outbreak on Feb. 29, 2020, and knowing that students had been at Life Care Center the day before.
“It was a real sinking feeling, before you can initially verbalize and comprehend the full extent of what is going on,” Morrison said. “We didn’t have the language of quarantine. We didn’t know the standards that we are in now. We didn’t know what we were dealing with.
“But I knew enough to be very concerned for the students who were there, for their families, the faculty and the college community.”
The next day, Morrison convened her executive committee to sort out how to support the students and faculty who had been exposed and get answers from Public Health – Seattle & King County.
“It was very clear to me that this was a full-blown college emergency and we needed it treated as such,” she said, adding that she also knew that the answers would come slowly.
Morrison and her team decided to close the campus, and assigned the deans to get in touch with each of the students, and the vice president of instruction to connect with the faculty. The school also partnered with the city of Kirkland’s emergency response team, which was also tending to first responders.
The school’s foundation sent gift cards and set up emergency funds for the exposed students, knowing that their spouses and partners were unable to work.
The school was disinfected and reopened March 4. But when a faculty member tested positive it was closed for the rest of the week. The college moved online for the rest of winter quarter and spring quarter, and began providing classes in hybrid mode in the summer, which it is still doing.
“Nobody left. Everybody stayed,” Morrison said of the students and faculty. “That is a real testament. Our goal in all this, during this time of great uncertainty, is that we are a calm and stable and steady place to help our students through this time of transition.”
In fact, she said, enrollment in the bachelor’s program for public health has “surged,” because “people appreciate now what public health really means.”
Gelbach, 33, had been a nursing assistant for 13 years before she enrolled at LWTech, which allowed her to attend nursing classes part time while still working and raising her son in Puyallup. She now works at Good Samaritan Hospital and nursing homes in the area, and is still enrolled at LWTech.
“I always knew I loved working with people,” she said. “I liked the interaction with all the patients. The teamwork. The camaraderie. It’s a good field to be in.”
Gelbach was familiar with viruses.
“But we didn’t think one was going to come here, so we weren’t worried at all,” she said. “We had seen similar viruses happen, and they never came to the United States.”
On the weekend of the outbreak, Gelbach was staying at her sister’s apartment so she didn’t have to drive back to Puyallup. Her sister called and said she had seen something in the newspaper about a virus outbreak at Life Care Center. Isn’t that where she was?
“I was shocked, but I took it with a grain of salt because I wasn’t concerned,” Gelbach remembered. “We didn’t know for sure, and I hadn’t heard anything.”
Still, she scrubbed her sister’s apartment from top to bottom, and left.
The next day she got an email from LWTech, telling everyone who had been at Life Care to quarantine. The students didn’t know each other, but a text chain started; those with elderly parents and kids were concerned.
Gelbach stayed home with her 4-year-old son. A few days later, she had a migraine and started to cough. She called the state Department of Health, which told her to go to Kirkland for a test, and sent her a file to track her symptoms.
On March 5, she and her son arrived in masks at Multicare Good Samaritan Hospital in Tacoma and were met by a nurse in full personal protective equipment.
“I figured if I had it, I had it,” she said. “I had this outlook of whatever comes, we’ll figure it out.”
Five days later, the doctor who tested her called to tell her that she had the coronavirus. The dean of her program at LWTech called to check in. The school sent a gift card for $250 to cover groceries and whatever she needed.
Cadondon, 39, a physical therapy student who lives in West Seattle, didn’t work at Life Care Center — but one of her professors had been there, assessing other students.
On that first weekend in March, Cadondon was at a wedding when she started getting text messages from classmates, telling her to look for an email about exposure to the coronavirus.
She went back to school on March 4 but started feeling sick and went home. Two days later, she was tested at the University of Washington Medical Center. At first, she was told not to come in, but when she said she had been exposed by someone at Life Care Center, they told her to come right down.
“That was the buzzword,” Cadondon said.
She got her positive result within 24 hours, after which the UW Medicine medical team asked to monitor her. With her fever at 104, she packed a bag, convinced she would have to stay in quarantine. When she arrived, she was told to go through the emergency room; staffers dressed in full PPE brought her a mask and goggles.
“I felt really weird, like a specimen,” she remembered.
She went home to bed for two weeks and felt lethargic and weak for weeks after. The school sent a gift card and checked in.
“At the beginning, I was upset,” she said. “How come, if the Life Care Center knew this was happening, they didn’t prevent the students and staff from coming in?
“But it’s not the staff’s fault or the school’s fault,” she said. “They did the best they could to help us out.”
She was contacted by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and was part of a research study conducted by Bloodworks Northwest.
LWTech President Morrison is inspired by her students, many of whom will be on the front lines of the pandemic, and its aftermath.
“Those students, who went through a great deal of stress and anxiety,” she said, “the fact that they are still enrolled and focused on service to others, even knowing the risks that health-care providers have gone through. It’s just remarkable.”
Rather than scare them into another line of work, their experiences have made Gelbach and Cadondon even more committed to helping others, despite the risks.
“If anything, it just strengthens my resolve to be a nurse,” said Gelbach, who will graduate in 2022. “This is part of being a nurse, and COVID shouldn’t be treated any differently than any other respiratory illnesses.”
Said Cadondon: “I chose this field because I wanted to make an impact and help other people, and that was really rewarding and still is.”
Gelbach has used her experience from Life Care at Good Samaritan, where she works on a floor with COVID-19 patients.
“I have seen 95-year-olds who are fine, and I have seen 40-year-olds on their backs with tubes in their mouths.”
And she thinks about the people at Life Care — the patients, but also the people who work there.
“I can’t imagine being there with all the news crews,” she said. “I worried about the patients there, but it was overwhelming at the beginning.
“It’s been a really crazy year,” she continued. “We’re just grateful.”