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Home Care Workers Go Above and Beyond During Sandy

November 29, 2012

Home Care Aide Marcia Murray reported for her usual evening shift in lower Manhattan on Sunday, October 28. The shift usually lasts 12 hours, but Murray was prepared to stay at her client’s apartment for several days, if necessary. Hurricane Sandy was coming, the subway and bus systems were shutting down, and Murray’s client was counting on her.

Murray’s supervisor at Cooperative Home Care Associates (CHCA), a worker-owned home care company based in the Bronx, had told her to brace herself for an extended stay. She ended up staying with her client through Wednesday, October 31.

“I was not upset,” Murray said. “I stayed because I had to.”

[Lissette Rodriguez]

Sacrifices Made Throughout CHCA

Murray’s commitment to her client seems extraordinary, but hundreds of other CHCA aides made similar sacrifices during the hurricane that put the city at a standstill. Lissette Rodriguez, who manages CHCA’s contract with Independence Care System (ICS), a Medicaid managed long-term care organization affiliated with PHI, estimates that one-third of CHCA’s 1,200 aides who serve ICS clients were stranded for days with their clients during Sandy.

CHCA, also a PHI affiliate, provides home care to thousands of elders and people with disabilities scattered throughout the Bronx and Manhattan. Many aides went “above and beyond” and stayed with their clients, many of whom live far away from the aides’ own homes, Rodriguez said. One aide took three buses and a train to report for duty, “just because she knew her client needed her.” Another spent $95 on a cab ride from New Jersey to the Bronx — “and she did it without even thinking about being reimbursed,” Rodriguez said. “It was just about, ‘I’ve got to get to work.'”

Marcia Murray was prepared for an extended stay with her client, Charles McFarlane, a paraplegic in his mid-50s. McFarlane relies on Murray and other aides for food, company, and to maintain hygiene. Murray has cared for McFarlane for nine years, and they’ve been through a lot together — snowstorms and Tropical Storm Irene — so they felt comfortable spending extended time with each other, she said. 

During Sandy, the power went out. “We had no lights, no heat, nothing,” Murray said, laughing. So she lit candles, cooked stewed chicken on the gas stove for dinner, and boiled water so McFarlane could bathe. They listened to the wind howl outside the first-floor apartment — “it sounded like music playing,” Murray said — and passed the time playing board games from their home country of Jamaica. “We were happy,” Murray said.

Emergency Preparation Was Critical

Like Murray, CHCA was well prepared for the storm. CHCA began to get ready for the storm on Friday, October 26, three full days before the storm made landfall. That night, CHCA’s coordinators — the staff who make sure aides get to their assignments on time — began to make calls to high-priority clients to inquire about their care needs during the storm. CHCA’s clients are internally designated a number based on their level of care needed:

  • Priority 1 clients require total care — they may be bed-bound, have Alzheimer’s or dementia, or are otherwise unable to take care of themselves — and have no reliable family members to help them out.
  • Priority 2 clients are similar in that they require total care, but they have a network of family who can support them.
  • Priority 3 and 4 clients require a less intense level of care; many can ambulate and fend for themselves for extended periods of time.

“When we know a disaster is coming, we really focus on the 1s and the 2s,” Rodriguez said. She added that PHI Coaching training came in handy when coordinators had to tell lower priority clients the difficult news that they might not receive their scheduled care during the storm.

[Yarleen Anavitate]After determining which clients most needed help riding out the storm, CHCA’s coordinators began calling their aides over the weekend. Even though many of the aides were scheduled to be off those days, they prepared to report for work for the duration of the storm.

“They know that if they’re not there, [the high-priority clients] really have no one else to depend on,” said Yarleen Anavitate, the service delivery manager for CHCA’s Visiting Nurse Service of New York (VNSNY) team. Like many CHCA managers and coordinators, Anavitate worked 14-hour days from her home throughout the storm, helping to coordinate services for CHCA’s most vulnerable clients.

The hurricane finally made landfall in the city on Monday, October 29, flooding streets, knocking out electricity, destroying homes, and causing tens of billions of dollars in damage. Everyone in New York was affected by the storm in some way. But because of CHCA’s hard work and preparation, “no clients were imperiled,” said Ralph Lozada, executive associate to the president at CHCA. “At the end of the day, people got the care they needed.”

[Ralph Lozada]

Extraordinary People

“Basically, we have a bunch of pretty extraordinary people that work for us,” Anavitate said — referring to all of CHCA’s aides, coordinators, and managers. During the storm, some aides told her that they were staying with their clients no matter what. “One of them was with a bed-bound patient that [needs] total care, and the aide decided on her own that she was not going to leave the patient,” she said. “Even if we paid her, yes or no.” (In the end, aides were paid for all the hours they stayed with their clients.)

“We have become accustomed to dealing with natural disasters and those that are not so natural, such as transit strikes,” said CHCA President/CEO Michael Elsas. “No amount of preparation is ever adequate. When it comes down to it, the bulk of the home care delivery system always relies on the dedication, caring, and reliability of the home care worker. It simply astounds me.”

McFarlane, the client in lower Manhattan, certainly appreciated the dedication and reliability of Murray. Asked what he would tell Murray about their shared storm experience, MacFarlane said he would say, “Thank you for sticking it out.

“Lots of people would complain, but the job was her priority at that time,” he added. The storm was difficult, and occasionally frightening; McFarlane kept worrying that his first-floor apartment would flood. But Murray helped him through it. 

“Life has its adversities, and you just sort of have to go with the flow,” McFarlane said. “If you’re with people who care about you, it’s even better.”

— by Matthew Ozga

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