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Mary Lavery (Photo Credit: David Benthal)

When the coronavirus pandemic hit the East End with sudden devastation, local health care workers stepped up to keep us safe. In this weeklong series ahead of the Thanksgiving season, we’re proud to highlight their work and show them our gratitude.

Mary Lavery | Director of nursing services, Peconic Landing

Mary Lavery grew up in Rocky Point, where helping her grandmother care for her grandfather as a teen sparked an interest in nursing-home work. Nearly three years ago she joined Peconic Landing, a retirement community in Greenport with more than 400 residents living in both independent and assisted-living facilities. In March, Suffolk County’s first-known COVID patient took a cab to the hospital; the driver also happened to work part time in the dietary department at Peconic Landing. Experts suspect this single exposure set off a cluster of deadly infections in the community.

“Around December, we started to hear about the outbreak overseas. Greg Garrett, our administrator, and I started ordering equipment really early on, which was great because we were prepared when it did hit us in, and rather hard. It was one sick person after the other, after the other, every day. We were isolating them and using all the PPE to take care of them and do whatever we could. 

Mary Lavery (Photo Credit: David Benthal)

In the very beginning, staff members would go into a local restaurant with their badge on and oftentimes people would just back away. And that was very hard for them. They were amazing, the loyalty to the members and their love for them that they wanted so much for them to be well and recover. 

Some of my staff are 18, 19 years old. They were working doubles for six weeks straight. Staff members were getting sick. And some were scared. How do you tell someone to come into work when they have young children or elderly grandparents that they live with? They were really good with each other and for each other. And we saved a lot of people.

Families have expressed that, ‘I haven’t held my mother since March.’ And I know. I have a mother who’s 82 years old and I know it’s been hard for everybody. We couldn’t have the dining room, which is very important to members for socialization. We couldn’t have group recreation activities and even simple things like a haircut or a manicure. We have a couple that’s been married for 65 years. He lives independently and used to come to the health center every day to sit with his wife and every night to have dinner with her. And now it’s only FaceTime. That’s heartbreaking. We’re trying to maintain any type of normalcy that we can, even just sitting down with somebody one-on-one to have a conversation about the song on the stereo or their family. 

People who enter health care do it for a reason.

Mary Lavery

A lot of nursing homes did not report as well or as quickly as we did. And I think the community now acknowledges how we went about things, and that we turned it around as quickly as we did. I think not hiding things also probably got us help as far as equipment and testing. The overnight nurse sent me a picture at midnight one night, saying ‘Have no fear, Homeland Security was here!’ It was her posing in front of a whole room filled with gowns and gloves. 

I would listen to the radio on the way home from work and people would say, “Something good came out of this. I cleaned out my closet and painted my bedroom.” And I’m thinking, I haven’t had a day off in 40 days. But people who enter health care do it for a reason. This is what we’re trained for, even though you hope it never happens. You just have to get up every day and say, ‘OK, I’m going back in.’ “