The sign at the entrance to Island Nursing Home in the Hancock County town of Deer Isle. Students from the University of New England’s nursing and osteopathic medicine program have been helping work at the home since a COVID-19 outbreak in November and December led to staff shortages. Kevin Miller/Staff Writer

DEER ISLE — For eight months, staff at Island Nursing Home had managed to keep the virus away from residents of their small facility in this historic fishing community.

But when COVID-19 finally arrived just before Thanksgiving, it swept through the Deer Isle nursing home with “insidious” ferocity. Every one of the home’s 62 residents was sickened – 15 of them fatally – along with 38 staff members, despite efforts to immediately segregate and isolate cases.

“With our small footprint, unfortunately the virus is very insidious so it did spread rather quickly in our facility,” said Matthew Trombley, Island Nursing Home’s senior executive director.

With nearly half of the facility’s staff eventually testing positive for COVID-19, Island Nursing Home turned to outbreak specialists at the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention who, in turn, connected administrators with the University of New England.

Senior executive director Matthew Trombley outside the Island Nursing Home in Deer Isle. Holly Haywood/University of New England

Within a week, nursing students and eventually future doctors on their winter break from the University of New England College of Health Professions and College of Osteopathic Medicine were working in the home. Because they are not yet licensed, the students helped with routine-but-critical aspects of daily care that become even more important during a deadly pandemic: assisting with meals for those unable to feed themselves, repositioning bed-bound patients, responding to calls and offering other comforts to residents.

“They are medical students, … so their passion for helping others was already there,” Trombley said recently outside of the nursing home. “They have been just a huge assistance to make sure we have enough hands to meet the needs of our residents. And they did it with a smile.”

The partnership helped the home fill vital shifts as virus-stricken staffers isolated at home while offering students an opportunity for intimate, hands-on experience during the worst infectious disease outbreak to hit the U.S. in a century.

“I’ve learned so much just by being here, and I’m thankful for that,” said Munib Abid, a 22-year-old nursing student who has been putting in roughly 40-hour weeks in Deer Isle since Dec. 12. “I’m looking to learn as much as I can and take those experiences with me.”

Although unique in Maine, the partnership between Island Nursing Home and UNE is just one example of the ways long-term care facilities have scrambled to fill vacancies during the pandemic. Among Maine’s 93 nursing homes, 35 reported shortages of both nurses and aides in a Jan. 3 report to federal regulators.

Facilities have responded by hiring additional staff, asking existing employees to work double-shifts or cover other jobs, and by enlisting the help of retirees or other trained professionals in the community. The Maine National Guard has also stepped in to assist with disinfection and sanitation during outbreaks.

Island Nursing Home in the Hancock County town of Deer Isle is one of many facilities statewide that has experienced staffing shortages after COVID-19 outbreaks sickened both residents and employees. Nursing and osteopathic medicine students from the University of New England have been helping to fill those staffing gaps since early-December. Kevin Miller/Staff Writer

‘THE CANARY IN THE MINE SHAFT’

The historic lobstering villages of Deer Isle and Stonington in Hancock County had maintained a low infection rate throughout the summer, even with what Deer Isle Town Manager James Fisher described as “a rebellious population that doesn’t like being told what to do.”

In July, the town worked with the local Healthy Island Project to secure a $30,000 grant to distribute masks and hand sanitizer, as well as launch a public awareness campaign to encourage businesses to require masks. Fisher said Island Nursing Home was a major reason for that campaign.

“We were doing everything we could because we knew the nursing home was the canary in the mine shaft,” Fisher said. “If we had community spread, it would make it into the nursing home.”

Located three miles south of the iconic Deer Isle Bridge that connects the town and neighboring Stonington to the mainland, Island Nursing Home pulls more than 80 percent of residents from surrounding communities. The facility is one of just a handful of long-term care homes remaining in a county where 25 percent of residents are over age 65.

“We are a facility built by the community, for the community,” Trombley said.

The facility was closed to outside visitors even before the state required it to prevent spread of the virus. But the virus quickly spread once it finally arrived: from one case on Nov. 21 to 21 cases on the 26th (Thanksgiving Day) and eventually to all 62 residents and 38 staff.

Not surprisingly, the 15 deaths and dozens of illnesses also took an emotional toll on the staff at the community-based home.

“They are taking care of their grandmothers, their grandfathers, their aunts, their uncles – it truly is a family-taking-care-of-family situation here,” Trombley said. “And even if they were not related through blood, … we are taking care of these individuals 24 hours a day, seven days a week and sometimes for more than a decade. So they become part of our family.”

‘IT SPARKED A FIRE IN ME’

For Abid, COVID-19 changed his career trajectory midstride.

The Westbrook High School graduate was roughly halfway through UNE’s four-year pharmacy program when the virus began spreading across the U.S. and the globe. He transferred to the nursing program last spring and hopes to finish it in August.

“During the pandemic, I came to realize that my true passion was more direct patient care,” Abid said one recent afternoon while taking a brief break from a shift at Island Nursing Home. “I saw what was going on, I saw what nurses were doing, and it sparked a fire in me to want to do something, to do more with what I had to offer.”

Since arriving in Deer Isle nearly a month ago with a certified nursing assistant friend, Abid said he has witnessed the dramatic psychological change in recovering residents as the receding virus allowed them to once again leave their rooms. He picked up clinical skills, has had time to spend with patients but also saw four residents with whom he worked succumb to the virus.

University of New England student Mary Garside on the causeway at Deer Isle. Holly Haywood/University of New England

Mary Garside, a 25-year-old second-year medical student at UNE, acknowledged it was a bit intimidating walking in for the first time, given the pandemic and the fact that she was new to the facility. But she said staff immediately welcomed them and she was able to help with some of the personal care of residents, such as feeding, moving and dressing them.

A New Hampshire native, Garside said this was one of her first opportunities to have hands-on contact with patients. Garside also personally knows people who have been impacted by COVID-19 and has seen the way it affects families.

Brandon Gibson, a UNE student, on the causeway at Deer Isle.  Holly Haywood/University of New England

“I wanted to take the opportunity to help where I could, given the situation that I’m in,” she said.

Likewise, 28-year-old Brandon Gibson from Presque Isle said he appreciated the chance to learn skills – as well as proper COVID-19 safety protocols – firsthand from experienced certified nursing assistants in a more intimate setting than a larger hospital.

“I’m in my textbook years of medical school for the first couple of years, and you feel kind of helpless,” Gibson said. “So being able to come up here to do what I can, and learn from this experience, is really important to me.”

COMMUNITY RESPONSE

The tight-knit communities on this southern tip of Hancock County also responded.

Volunteers put together a “meal train” to deliver meals daily to nursing home staff members infected with COVID as well as the UNE students and other professionals who arrived to help.

Volunteers have also been supplying drinks and snacks daily to staff members as a gesture of thanks as well as seed for the bird feeders placed outside residents’ windows, many of whom were room-bound during the outbreak.

“That’s the great thing about this island community,” said Barrett Gray, a Stonington resident who helped coordinate the efforts with Healthy Island Project. “Whenever there is a need, the whole island comes together.”

One UNE student was so inspired by the response that she wrote to Gray and the rest of the community.

“I am taken aback by the cohesiveness and strength of this community,” the student wrote in the note, which was published in the local weekly newspaper. “Community members providing food to health care workers is so sweet and humbling. I wish I could thank everyone personally, If there is a community/town with a will to overcome adversity, Deer Isle is it.”

The outbreak at Island Nursing Home appears to have passed, with the last resident or staff testing positive more than one month ago. Additionally, residents and staff have now been vaccinated for COVID-19.

But Trombley said if there was a “silver lining” to the pandemic, it is that the two institutions are now developing a formal working relationship in which UNE students will do clinical rotations at the home during their training in geriatrics.

“They really were a vital part of making sure our residents were being taken care of,” Trombley said. “We look to work with them more in the future, hopefully under different circumstances.”

Related Headlines


Only subscribers are eligible to post comments. Please subscribe or to participate in the conversation. Here’s why.

Use the form below to reset your password. When you've submitted your account email, we will send an email with a reset code.