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Ave Maria Village staff recall fighting pandemic

Ave Maria Village prepared its own COVID unit for residents.

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Tim Burchill, center, CEO of Ave Maria Village, talks about fighting the coronavirus pandemic. At right is Deacon Ken Votova, chaplain at Ave Maria Village; at left is Heather Oster, nurse manager. John M. Steiner / The Sun

Editor's note: This story is part of the 2021 "Essential to Jamestown" special edition of The Jamestown Sun. The annual Progress Edition features stories on essential workers, agencies and businesses during the coronavirus pandemic.

Amber Dockter, nurse manager at Ave Maria Village, remembers two resident roommates at Ave who were each diagnosed with COVID-19 at separate times.

“One was newly diagnosed, she was asymptomatic and the other, unfortunately, was quite imminent (to pass away),” she said. “Her family was unable to be with her but the roommate made it a point to spend her time with the other one throughout her last time on Earth and it was beautiful.”

Dockter could not wipe her own tears away because she was wearing her N95 mask.


“It broke your heart but at the same time your heart was so full just to see that,” she said.

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From left, Amber Dockter, nurse manager, Hannah Clemens, CNA, and Andrea Bonderud, nurse manager, talk about their work at Ave Maria Village during the height of the coronavirus pandemic. John M. Steiner / The Sun

Work to keep it out

Ave Maria Village and other nursing homes worked to keep coronavirus out but ultimately many facilities reported cases. In North Dakota, there have been 883 deaths related to COVID-19 in long-term care as of March 14 since the pandemic began.

“Just thinking back, we were all super scared back in March and April (2020) at the beginning of this because there was so much we didn’t know … and still don’t,” said Tim Burchill, CEO of Ave Maria Village.

He said for six months Ave didn’t have any resident cases of coronavirus. Occasionally an employee contracted COVID-19 outside of the facility but did not bring it in.


Burchill was thinking during the summer of 2020 that maybe the worst of it was over.

“And then came September,” Burchill said. “And that’s when in North Dakota and Stutsman County things just blew up. There were outbreaks everywhere. … It was just running through the community like wildfire.”

He said Ave had a lot of employees with family members working in other places where outbreaks occurred.

“It just became inevitable,” he said of coronavirus cases occurring at Ave.

Oct. 13: First resident positive case

As part of guidelines issued by Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services, Ave prepared its own COVID unit for residents who would test positive.

That day came Oct. 13.

“When we had our first positive we met as an entire facility,” said Tonie Lagodinski, assistant administrator. “... once we let everyone (staff) know we had our first resident positive, we had hands go up offering to work in the COVID unit.”

COVID positive residents were isolated in a specific area at Ave and the same staff worked with them, said Heather Oster, nurse manager.


“The staff (working in the COVID unit) had their own separate entrance so they weren’t coming into the facility so we weren’t trying to cross-contaminate, basically,” she said.

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Andrea Bonderud, nurse manager at Ave Maria Village, says residents who recovered from COVID-19 still have lingering effects from being ill. John M. Steiner / The Sun

Andrea Bonderud, nurse manager, said Ave was testing twice a week to mitigate the spread, identify the virus early and contain it.

Hannah Clemens, a CNA, remembers staff adding on to the COVID unit “and it kept getting further and further down the hallway,” she said.


Residents moved to the COVID unit had only essentials moved with them. Their other belongings were cleaned and moved to the chapel.

“We had labels on everything and this whole room (the chapel) was just full of residents’ things,” Dockter said.

Bonderud said there were times when a number of employees were out because they had contracted COVID-19 or were close contacts of someone else who had.

“It was very rough. A lot of us were here very long hours,” she said.

Lagodinski remembers seeing Lydia Saxberg, a registered nurse at Ave, with her nose bleeding from wearing an N95 face mask on so many shifts.

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Tonie Lagodinski, assistant administrator at Ave Maria Village, says staff immediately volunteered to work in the nursing home's COVID unit when the first case was reported. John M. Steiner / The Sun


“I just feel like that speaks the volumes of the physical and the emotional stress connection that all staff had” from mid-October until mid-December when cases declined, she said.

Lagodinski said the North Dakota Department of Health was “instrumental” in finding additional licensed nurses to help work at Ave when needed. She said this wasn’t unique to Ave; across the state, facilities had help from the state medical reserve that sent nurses to help with various shifts.

Dockter said residents’ COVID-19 symptoms were “a roller coaster.”

“You can go in and do an assessment ... and then you may go back and it would be a completely different story,” she said. “You might see that there’s a major decline, you have to rush to find oxygen, get the provider on the phone because things are changing, trying to call the families.”

She said it was difficult during Ave’s surge of COVID cases.


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Heather Oster, nurse manager at Ave Maria Village, says the same staff worked with residents who contracted COVID-19. John M. Steiner / The Sun

“They’re like family,” she said of the residents. “... you would take a break and cry, but then you would take a deep breath in and you would come back inside and know that you’re needed and you’re wanted. It’s going to be OK, we’re all going to get through this.”

Saxberg agreed.

“I think how quickly it would change (is what stands out),” she said.

Deacon Ken Votava, the chaplain at Ave, said even though the chapel was full of residents’ belongings and there were no worship services, faith and spirituality were present.

“Our mission calls us to share Christ with people that are entrusted to us and that was still happening,” he said. He said it wasn’t only through him but the other staff and the residents as well.

“So that was encouraging and beautiful to witness throughout all of this,” he said. “So many people said, ‘Well, they’re dying alone,’ but they weren’t. Jesus was still here and working through people to find his way to each one of those individuals that were entrusted to us ...”

Burchill said it was heartbreaking that families didn’t have as much access to their loved ones.

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Peggy Widmer, activities director at Ave Maria Village, says Ave worked to keep residents connected to their families through a variety of means during the pandemic. Visitation has resumed with some restrictions still in place. John M. Steiner / The Sun

“But the staff didn’t let them die alone, let them suffer alone,” he said.

Lagodinski said families were able to visit a loved one who was expected to pass away.

And during this time there were also healthy residents in the facility to care for, residents who were affected by the loss of communal dining and activities, Oster said. Technology was one tool used to help residents stay in touch with their families.

Ave now

As of this writing, visitation has opened up again with scheduled visits and some in-room visitation with residents in decline or on hospice, said Peggy Widmer, activities director. Some activities have also resumed.

Bonderud said some residents who survived COVID-19 continue to suffer the effects of the illness and are not as healthy as they were previously.

Burchill said Ave has learned a lot about infection control and prevention since the beginning of the pandemic. He said the cost of PPE has increased and he doesn’t expect that to change.

Support from many areas

Burchill said Ave appreciates the support given during the pandemic which was expressed in a variety of ways.

“The families of residents were so grateful for what the staff was doing,” he said. “So understanding, supportive. I think that was God at work, I really do.”

Votava said a lot of credit should go to prayer from the community and churches.

“There was that silent backup, if you will, to give us all the strength we needed to get through those days because we weren’t doing it alone,” he said. “Area pastors were calling and saying ‘Is there anything we can do for you,’’’ and praying for them. The “Prayer Lot Prayer Warriors,” people who prayed to end the pandemic, for health care workers and others, also came to Ave’s parking lot to pray for them, Votava said.

“I think, too, just about every nursing home in North Dakota ... was going through exactly what we were going through at about the same time,” Burchill said. “Eventide had the same thing. We could talk to Doug (Panchot, Eventide Jamestown executive director), at least we could share things and commiserate as to how we were handling things.”

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Staff from Ave Maria Village discuss the coronavirus pandemic in the chapel of the nursing home. John M Steiner / The Sun

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