Joyce Church’s alarm rang at a quarter past six Tuesday morning, and by 6:45, she was up and about at the Thorvaldson Care Center. She ate a small bowl of Cream of Wheat, a slice of toast, and a banana. Then, as she brushed her teeth, a knock on the door: it was time to get her second dose of the vaccine.
A few minutes earlier, three cars parked in the back lane, one of them containing a bin holding 65 doses of Pfizer. With precision, the maintenance man slicked aside the slush of a late March snow fall from the staircase, clearing the way for arguably the 65 most anticipated visitors to ever come through the back door.
Church, 92, made her way to the makeshift clinic in the dining room. "I was first in line for the first dose, and I was first in line for the second," she says. After a year of waiting, she didn’t want to wait any more. Neighbours such as Gus and Dot and Joan and Gordon were patiently sitting, awaiting a shot of their own.
Soon, Joyce rolled up the sleeve on her bright blue shirt, embroidered with starfish and seashells. The shot was quick; she didn’t even notice it going in.
One by one, every resident got their shot. Under their masks, Jocelyn and Karen Thorvaldson breathed sighs of relief. "We’ve worked so hard to get to this point," says Jocelyn, the administrator.
The work started last March, when the family-owned, for-profit centre went into complete lockdown: residents were told they’d be getting no visitors, couldn’t take non-essential outings, and moving forward, would have to be distanced from one another during activities. The intermediate care centre became its own self-contained bubble — with an on-site nurse, prepared meals, and a staff that worked there, and only there — benefits not every seniors’ facility enjoyed.
At the time, Joyce Church was unfazed. Over the phone, she told the Free Press patience would be virtuous.
"We need to be keeping away," she said. "If we do that, we’ll be just fine."
Church’s prophecy has thus far been fulfilled. The centre, which serves a clientele in an environment one rung below personal care homes and one rung above assisted living, managed to accomplish through patience and perseverance something rather miraculous: between last March, and the moment residents rolled up their sleeves for a jab of Pfizer Tuesday morning, zero cases of COVID-19 were found at the Thorvaldson Care Center. Knock on wood.
It’s something the Thorvaldsons — Jocelyn, Karen and their father, Herman, 86, who founded the centre with his parents in 1959, still comes into work, and got his second dose when the residents got theirs — don’t for a moment take for granted.
Sacrifices were and are being made: the rules in place a year ago are in place now, even with the vaccines, which means every interview with a resident for this story took place with a window in the middle.
The Thorvaldsons converted a vacant room into a visiting suite, though it looks more like a recording studio: residents go into the bathroom, where they sit in an armchair. They wear a lapel microphone, connected to a sound system set up in the bathtub. A section of the door was cut out and replaced with glass, and on the other side, masked family members sit and chat via microphone, with a HEPA air filter humming. (Temperatures are checked before and visitors are screened and scheduled).
"I can hear you fine," says 94-year-old Gordon Boucher.
Boucher got his shot shortly after Church. "As with the first, I was delighted by the second," he says, wearing a striped short-sleeved button-up shirt, a new pair of suspenders clinging tight around his shoulders.
"It’s been a difficult year," he says, moving in a short time before the pandemic began. Having grown up during the Great Depression on a farm in Renwer, Man., about two miles north of Duck Mountain, it wasn’t his first.
"I was just a kid then," he says. "You learn a lot when times are tough."
Boucher is a modest, soft-spoken man. He considers his words carefully — he was in his working days a skilled labour negotiator — and when considering what the vaccine means, he takes his time. "I just think I’m lucky," he says. "I have what few people are lucky enough to have."
The shot brings closer the day when he might receive a visit from a friend. It relieves him a great deal of his self-perceived vulnerability. It also reminds him of the joys of his life — a career he loved, a family he built with his wife Betty, winters in Pfarr, Texas, and trips to every Canadian province and all but three American states (Rhode Island, Nebraska and Alaska).
The vaccine got him thinking about that. "I don’t know that I’m going to have a very active life because of it," he says. "Mind you, I cannot complain. Life’s been good to me." Tuesday’s needle was only the most recent blessing.
When Joan Guttormsson got her shot, she wasn’t nervous. "They take a nice little needle, and boom! You’re out of there," she says. After waiting during the post-vaccination observation period, the 90-year-old waltzed into the reception area and sat where she’d felt most comfortable since she was an eight-year-old girl: on a piano bench, her hands floating above the keys.
"I played Who’s Sorry Now," she laughs, a 1920s standard made famous by Connie Francis in 1958. It was a purposeful choice, addressed to the virus. "You had your way, now you must pay," she sang. "I’m glad that you’re sorry now."
Jocelyn Thorvaldson admits some tears were shed Tuesday: when the doses arrived, when the residents rolled up their sleeves, when she hit send on an email to residents’ families to tell them the wonderful news. But while the vaccine means the world, it doesn’t mean the self-contained bubble can burst, and not quite yet does it mean life can return to normal.
"We just have to wait," she says, sounding like Joyce Church did in March 2020. "We still have to be patient."
One year later, Church hasn’t changed her tune. She’s still being patient, still taking extra precautions. Only now, she has a bandage on her left arm, covering a little dot that makes a big difference.
She stares at her shoulder, smiling, as she looks down at the bandage. "I’m glad you’re there," she tells it.
Ben Waldman covers a little bit of everything for the Free Press.