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'This Wasn’t Right': A Nursing Home Worker’s Daughter Grieves The Loss Of Her Mother

Cynthia Whitfield, a nursing home worker at Grand Manor Nursing & Rehabilitation, who passed away on April 21, 2020.
Jasmine Whitfield

When the coronavirus began spreading in Missouri, Jasmine Whitfield remembers how scared her mother was. 

Cynthia Whitfield, 58, was a certified medication technician at Grand Manor Nursing and Rehabilitation in St. Louis’ Grand Center. Since March, dozens of nursing home workers and residents in the St. Louis region have tested positive for the coronavirus. Whitfield was one of them.

Whitfield died of COVID-19 on April 21 at Barnes-Jewish Hospital. She had tried her best to protect herself against the virus, Jasmine Whitfield said.

“She was terrified,” Whitfield said. “She bought vitamins. She bought N95 masks. She paid $15 apiece for those. She was like, ‘Here, take a vitamin C package. You have to keep your immune system healthy. Make sure you wash your hands.’ She bought us all sanitizers. She was just really trying to protect herself against the virus.”

There weren’t enough masks and other personal protective equipment at Grand Manor, which was why Cynthia needed to purchase her own, Jasmine said. Other nursing home workers have also complained about the lack of protective equipment at their facilities. SEIU Healthcare, a union that represents nursing home workers in Missouri, has urged facilities to give hazard pay to all workers and paid sick leave during the pandemic. 

“We already know that this virus was very common in nursing homes. I think they should have already had PPE,” Jasmine said. “Once my mother passed, then that’s when the PPE came along. Not before. After.” 

In the second week of April, Cynthia was tested for the coronavirus. While she waited for the test results, she was informed that five people at Grand Manor had tested positive. When Cynthia began feeling too sick to work, she tried to ask for paid sick leave, but her request was denied and she was still asked to report to work, Jasmine said. 

“She had the body ache, the shortness of breath, she’s sweating here and there, no appetite,” Jasmine said. “She has all the symptoms, so you still allow her to come back to work, not only to put your patients at risk, but your other staff?”

Grand Manor declined to comment specifically about Cynthia Whitfield’s death. Shannan Craft, director of nursing, said she does not have access to records of employees who died. While residents at Grand Manor have tested positive for the virus, workers may not have caught it from someone at the nursing home, Craft said. 

“If we have employees that leave the facility who are not following social distancing, you can pretty much acquire it from anywhere,” Craft said. “We really can’t say where a person was exposed.”

Cynthia Whitfield's final days

Cynthia was admitted to St. Mary’s Hospital on April 14 and was quickly put on a ventilator, so her children were not able to speak to her. On April 21, Jasmine recalled handling multiple calls from doctors and nurses. A doctor at St. Mary’s Hospital told her that Cynthia’s oxygen levels were very low. She needed to be transferred to Barnes-Jewish Hospital to be hooked up to an ECMO machine that would put more oxygen into her blood. 

Jasmine said her grandmother had also been admitted to the hospital on April 21 after showing severe symptoms of the coronavirus. She likely caught it from Cynthia.

“This is someone my mother spent every day with,” Jasmine said. “My mother went down there the Sunday before she was admitted to the hospital. She helped clean [my grandmother’s] house. Now both of them in the hospital in the same week, right behind each other.” 

Her grandmother is still being treated at a St. Louis hospital. 

On the night of April 21, Jasmine received a call from a doctor at Barnes-Jewish Hospital who said that Cynthia’s heart had stopped and that she needed to receive emergency intravenous medication. After about an hour, Jasmine called for an update. 

“The nurse who answered the phone said, ‘No one called you?’ I said, ‘No. It’s now 8:50. No one called me.’ He went on to say: ‘I’m sorry. We did everything we could, and your mother didn’t make it,’” she said. 

'I could've been an advocate for her'

Friends and family of deceased nursing home worker Cynthia Whitfield gathered to celebrate her life by releasing balloons at Beckett Park in north St. Louis in April 2020.
Credit Jasmine Whitfield
Friends and family of Cynthia Whitfield recently gathered to celebrate her life by releasing balloons at Beckett Park in north St. Louis.

Jasmine, 25, and Cynthia Whitfield had a close relationship. They talked every day before Cynthia was admitted to the hospital. 

“She was my best friend,” Jasmine said. “She’d help anyone. She didn’t have to know you.” 

Jasmine remembered fondly of her mother’s last birthday party. She brought a lot of joy to her community, she said. 

“She’s just like, ‘I just want a big ol’ party. Just a big ol’ party,’” Jasmine said. “So, we’d gather family and friends. The smile on her face, like how she enjoyed herself. That’s the last memory that sticks to me.” Recently, Jasmine’s family and their friends brought balloons to Beckett Park in north St. Louis to celebrate Cynthia’s life. 

“We all said small things about her,” Jasmine said. “We said a prayer, a poem, and we released the balloons.” 

One of the attendees of the ceremony was Grand Manor’s administrator. But Jasmine had hoped to hear from other people from the nursing home. She wished she did more for her mother while she was alive, Jasmine said. 

“I underreacted. I didn’t give her enough attention like I should have,” Jasmine said. “The day she spent alone in the hospital. Maybe if I was there, I could’ve been an advocate for her. I could’ve spoke up; I could’ve said this wasn’t right.”

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Eli is the science and environment reporter at St. Louis Public Radio.