Kimberly Marselas
Kimberly Marselas

Reggie Hartsfield capped off a bit of a cry-fest on the opening day of the American Health Care Association’s annual convention earlier this week.

One after another, frontline workers and owners who had spent most of the time since the last convention surviving COVID-19 came on stage at the Gaylord National Resort and Convention Center to share their lows and their highs, their anguished choices, their ongoing struggles to be safe and keep others safe, and the memories of staff and residents lost.

They even threw in snippets from the moving AHCA/NCAL short film “COVID-19 in Long Term Care,” during which the teary-eyed staff in the audience no doubt saw themselves reflected on the big screens.

Had germs not been an issue, the lady sitting next to me and I might have shared a box of tissues.

But then came Hartsfield, sauntering on stage in a sophisticated gray suit like some linebacker-ish version of catharsis personified.

Reggie Hartsfield stands at podium on stage.
Reggie Hartsfield, co-owner of Advantage Living Centers, speaks at the AHCA/NCAL opening session. Courtesy of AHCA/NCAL.

The co-owner of Advantage Living Centers, with 12 facilities in Michigan, Hartsfield almost died of COVID-19. He began to feel ill on March 31, 2020, the very first day that one of his facilities reported a positive case.

But, as with the situation that was only beginning to unfold in nursing homes across the country, his problems were about to get a lot worse.

Hartsfield didn’t come to the D.C. suburbs to cry over the past. He came to share his recovery and his mission for living, despite the very long time it took the once-healthy American Heart Association volunteer and godfather of six to recover.

You can maybe imagine parts of the story.

On Day Four of quarantine, he had what his doctor considered a mild case, and he had no pre-existing conditions that would cause too much concern. On Day 10, he coughed up blood following a work call in which a colleague expressed concern about his voice. Afterward, Hartsfield started having breathing problems while driving to the ER.

He would lose 30 pounds and end up with “the lungs of a smoker” after narrowly avoiding a ventilator. In all, he took nearly six months to recover and find the strength to walk back up the stairs again.

“I went from being on the frontline to not even being a spectator,” Hartsfield told the masked and socially distanced crowd. “I had to focus on getting well, and that was very hard for me.”

Like the industry facing its own mortality, Hartsfield went headlong into the struggle and refused to go down. He remained resilient and determined, even as COVID ravaged his state and took the lives of 28 people he knew well, including family and residents.

“Contracting and almost dying of covid taught me to see life differently. I’m grateful and appreciative. I’m appreciative of our work more than ever. I better understand how the residents’ health challenges affect their lives,” he said. “Family is not just blood. The doctors, the nurses, the therapists, they became my community. They became my family.”

And while Hartsfield told the audience he has learned to appreciate sitting still — maybe even to see life’s simple beauty in “Technicolor” — his resounding message was to keep moving forward.

Many themes about industry challenges ran through this year’s sessions, but as far as inspirational undercurrents, Hartsfield’s incantation might have been the best: “I’m proud of my legacy,” he said. “I’m living my life differently, and now it’s your turn.”

So even if you missed the emotional reunion at AHCA, know it’s OK to shed the tears you need. You’re not alone. There’s no need to wait for COVID to end to let go of some of the pain you’ve been holding in.

When you’re ready, though, follow Hartsfield’s lead and recommit to the work you do.

It may be the most meaningful way to honor your own journey, as well as the sacrifices of those who lost their lives. It may also be the only way to keep open the facilities that bring together those you love serving and those you love serving with.

Kimberly Marselas is senior editor of McKnight’s Long-Term Care News.

Opinions expressed in McKnight’s Long-Term Care News columns are not necessarily those of McKnight’s.