Wish I was there — Myda's nursing home parade through the heart of town

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James M. Berklan
James M. Berklan

I don't care how grand your area's Fourth of July parade or festivites might have been. The best parade I've heard about lately took place last month due to the efforts of a creative skilled nursing facility. This festive fanfare should puff up every provider with pride — and get everyone's creative juices flowing.

Our tale centers on Stillwater, OK, and stars Westhaven Nursing and Rehabilitiation and some inspired individuals.

A nurse at Physicians Choice Hospice, which operates at Westhaven, learned that a resident had always wanted to be IN a parade herself and not just watch one, as she had for so many decades. It turns out 106-year-old Myda Lewis mentioned her wish in front of the right people.

For her 107th birthday — June 21 to be exact — the staff, and untold numbers of strangers, put on a parade right down Main Street that attracted more than 1,000 people, a helicopter overhead, national news coverage and a great big commercial for Westhaven and the long-term care profession in general.

Not bad for a plan that took just a few days to germinate into a spectacle they'll be talking about for years.

“It turned into something that none of us expected,” Director of Nursing Jennifer McGrew proudly admitted in a phone interview Tuesday, nearly two weeks after the big day.

Let's start near the beginning. After Lewis mentioned that she had spent many a day watching parades out of her workplace window on Main Street but would like to be in one herself, hospice and skilled nursing workers started to form a plan. A ride in a convertible, maybe even around the parking lot. Then, it was ask a few people to come out of their shops between 12th and 7th streets on Main Street to wave as Myda would be driven by. Westhaven sent a few nurses to distribute flyers in that area on a Monday, three days before Lewis' Thursday birthday.

Then came the kind of viral activity that most long-term care residents and staff can only dream of.

Some unnamed individual put the flyer on Facebook, McGrew recalled. That caught the eye of local newspaper and broadcast stations. The combined efforts inspired area business and volunteers to spring into action.

“We never expected a real parade, so we never sought a permit with the city or talked to the police,” McGrew explained. “We were hoping to drive down the street around 12:15 and have a couple of people wave to her.” By Wednesday afternoon, talks with the city and police were necessary, and authorities “were wonderful,” she said.

The police sent motorcycles, and the sheriff sent an official car. The Shamrock Volunteer Fire Department sent a truck, and a local ambulance service also donated a vehicle.

A trucking company sent a big rig, somebody entered a classic car in the procession. A local realtor brought a pony that kids could pet. Oklahoma State University's mascot, Pistol Pete, came to greet everyone.

Of course, Westhaven's staff also marched in the caravan.

On parade day, several pubs that don't normally open until mid-afternoon welcomed people early to serve lunch and offer a place to stay cool before the procession kicked off. A local furniture store held a pre-event party and offered drinks and cookies, and sign-making materials.

News channels 5, 6, 9 and 33 and the print media covered the event — before, during and after. That included Channel 5's helicopter following overhead, capturing the throngs six to seven people deep in some places. Curious and encouraging strangers came from over an hour away. 

“It was cool to see how many people pulled their kids and grandkids into this, and were giving [Lewis] cards and flowers,” McGrew recalled. Video of the grand cavalcade can still be seen on Westhaven's and the local media's various Facebook pages. The event also made the NBC national news and expansive international newspaper coverage.

After the exhilarating slow creep down Main Street in a champaign-colored convertible festooned with balloons, signs and an umbrella to sit under, Lewis was joined at Westhaven by her 90-year-old son and 87-year-old daughter, among others, for food and a reception.

She was resplendent in a silky pink blouse, a white sash that had "107" written in rhinestones and a sparkling tiara. Pink sunglasses and flowered pink pants completed her ensemble — which also included a glowing smile, of course.

“It was more than what she expected,” McGrew said of Lewis — and virtually everyone else associated with the event. “She was just blown away. We explained to her how it picked up speed and we made sure she was OK with all the news stations coming in. We made sure she could function through the day; she had a couple of rest periods.

“If you go to her now and mention it, she just giggles. She definitely felt like a movie star for a day.”

She wasn't the only featured performer. Also faring pretty well was Westhaven, an 80-bed for-profit facility, one of four run by Health Systems of Oklahoma, McGrew explained.

“Seeing the community come together for one our residents, seeing the outpouring of the community was just phenomenal,” McGrew excitedly told me. “It did so much for us. Staff all worked together, to get her nails painted, her hair done, her outfit picked out. It was wonderful to see the community back a thing like this. It was huge for staff morale.”

It was also a marketing bonanza for skilled nursing in general, and Westhaven Nursing and Rehab in particular.

“Getting our name out there was so good,” McGrew noted. “You see so much in the news about bad long-term care facilities. The first thing people usually see is all of these awful things in commercials and lawsuits. It's just nice to shed some positive light on long-term care.

“I went to a wound care class last week and somebody asked where we were from and they said, ‘Oh my god! I saw you guys on the news!'”

How fitting. It was, after all, the best parade of the season. And an idea that deserves replicating by providers elsewhere.

Follow Editor James M. Berklan @JimBerklan.

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