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“It’s like everybody here is in jail” – long-term care residents discuss life amid COVID

Three residents inside a COVID-plagued retirement home discuss their hopes, fears and worries

Dr. Jerry Francisco, a resident of The Village of Germantown, stands in front of the facility on Tuesday, April 28, 2020, where four people have died. Francisco, the former longtime medical examiner for Shelby County who performed autopsies on Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Elvis Presley. (Mark Weber/Daily Memphian)
Dr. Jerry Francisco, a resident of The Village of Germantown, stands in front of the facility where five people have died. Francisco is the former longtime medical examiner for Shelby County who performed autopsies on Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Elvis Presley. (Mark Weber/Daily Memphian)

Like it or not, Dr. Jerry Francisco will be remembered for two things.

He supervised the autopsy of Elvis Presley after the singer died unexpectedly at his Graceland mansion in 1977.

And in 1968, Francisco personally performed the autopsy of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., extracting a mushroomed .30-06 rifle slug that had torn through the civil rights leader’s jaw and spine before lodging near his left shoulder blade.

“It was just beneath the skin in the back,’’ says the retired Shelby County medical examiner, dismissing claims that King was killed in a high-level government cabal.

“The world loves a conspiracy. It’s a lot more fun to have a conspiracy than to have the truth.’’

 These days Francisco, 87, lives far from the public spotlight at The Village at Germantown, a retirement home in suburban Memphis.

Though he still fields occasional questions about the deaths of King and Presley he is more focused of late on the novel coronavirus pandemic that’s killed five residents in The Village’s skilled nursing unit and has altered the very way of life for the locked-down facility’s 300 residents along with their connections to the outside world.

“At some point this pandemic will have run its course and we’ll get back to normal,’’ said Francisco, whose life over the past two months has been anything but normal — spending long hours confined in his apartment, sneaking out to play card games with neighbors and catching up with family via email. 

“Now, the question is when?’’  

P.D. Miller put it another way.

“What I worry about is what is this new world going to be like for my children and grandchildren?’’ said Miller, 81, a retired periodontist.

“What’s the economy going to be like for them? What is the rebound going to be? Because I personally feel that with the shutdown being what it is, if we open tomorrow, there would be a market impact on the economy. And I just don’t know how much the economy is going to bounce back to begin with and how rapid that’s going to be. And I worry about that.’’

Whitney Miller talks with her parents Dr. P.D. Miller and Greene Miller, during a Zoom call from her East Memphis home on May 1, 2020. The Millers are residents at The Village at Germantown which has suffered from an outbreak of COVID-19 and can’t have in-person visitors. (Jim Weber/Daily Memphian)

Miller and Francisco spoke with the Institute for Public Service Reporting via telephone about their coronavirus-altered lives at The Village, a licensed assisted living facility in Germantown where some 700 people live or work — a virtual “small town,’’ says beloved CEO Mike Craft.

Life in The Village began changing in March, when visitation was cut off and activities were curtailed. For Francisco, that meant no more dinners with friends down in dining areas or drinks at the bar. For Miller, there was no more weight lifting or Tai Chi in the gym. Both live in independent living, the facility’s least restricted area where residents live in apartments and pretty much free to do as they please in normal times.

But when one of Miller’s caregivers tested positive for COVID-19 he and his wife Mary were place in quarantine. They couldn’t leave their apartment for two weeks.

“It’s like everybody here is in jail,’’ Miller joked. “But we were not only in jail, we were in solitary confinement for two weeks.’’

Though activities were restricted they didn’t cease — in-house speakers still give daily lectures and presentations on closed-circuit TV.

Carolyn Malish (submitted)

Creative individuals like Carolyn Malish joined an informal exercise group and found new ways to bond with neighbors.

“We get together every morning at 11:30 and we do chair exercises out in the lobby area of our floor,’’ said Malish, 78.

“We keep our distance and they know what to do because they’ve done it before the quarantine. So I asked, could I join them? And they said, sure. So, I’ve gotten to meet six of my neighbors really well. And it’s been wonderful.’’

Residents in independent living are free to leave the complex but are subject to screenings, including a temperature check, upon return. For Malish, who cares for her husband, John, who suffers from Parkinson’s, it’s an opportunity to escape, meet a friend, and catch a taste of life as it once was.  

“We’ll go to Arby’s and we’ll go through the drive-thru and get our lunch and then park in the parking lot in our cars and roll the window down so that we’re six feet apart and we can talk to each other,’’ she said. “I mean, there’s always a way to get around these things without breaking the law …

“I’m a people person. I love to be around people. And that’s what’s really, really hard is not being able to be out and being with all my church friends and my choir.’’

The longtime music director at Church of the Holy Spirit, Malish was asked to perform for an Easter service live-streamed through the facility.

“It was wonderful having a chance to do music again even if there’s only six people sitting in the room,’’ she said.

“I was back doing what I loved doing the most. It was the highlight of my being quarantined.’’

Still, she worries what church will be like when Memphis fully reopens. (Diocese of Memphis Bishop David Talley lifted the suspension of Mass on May 16, yet restricted through June 30 the “physical exchange of peace’’ — hugging and shaking of hands — and singing, which can transmit COVID-19 by projecting water droplets.) 

“There’s not going to be hugging and shaking hands and all the things that,’’ she said.

“That’s what love is. You know, you love your neighbor and you show it. So, it’s going to be very difficult to restrain from that. And, you know, they keep talking about there’s going to be another wave of this in the fall. And if once you’ve gotten it, you’re not immune to it again. I mean, there’s some very bad reports coming out.’’

For weeks, the reports coming out of The Village were dismal.

Day after day, news came out of the facility’s skilled nursing unit where the most frail and vulnerable live. People were sick. And dying. In all, five have died so far. (Testing May 14-15 of hundreds of workers and residents found no new cases.)

It was a daunting scenario. Yet the residents in independent living say without hesitation they never feared it spreading to them.   

“They are so far away from us, they might as well be in Seattle,’’ Miller said. “I’ve never been down there, did not know the people that were there. So, there’s no way that they could, they personally could contaminate me.’’

People talk about the virus, he said. They just don’t fear it.

“The mood is amazingly positive here. Everybody seems to understand the situation and they’re accepting it very, very well’’ — for now, Miller said.

“My question is, if this continues on and on are they going to accept it or are they going to become more frustrated and perhaps angrier? But it’s only been going on like a month now. (Miller was interviewed April 27) And everybody on the surface is very upbeat. I don’t know what it’s like underneath, but we don’t sit around and talk about how miserable we are.’’

Francisco agrees.

“I don’t think that’s really affected us in any way at all. The administration has done a superb job of organizing things, allowed us to maintain as normal lifestyle as possible. They deliver all of our meals, to our apartments. We order them from the set menus the day before and they’re delivered to our apartments,’’ he said.

“So that’s been superb. They’ve provided a series of in-house television events, a series of lectures, seminars, et cetera, in which limited number of people attend, but because of our closed circuit television, the rest of the village can see it.’’

For Francisco, it’s a time to catch up on personal studies and his great love, reading.

“We have a superb library here. A variety of books, history, biographies, fiction — both the large print and regular size. So, it’s a fantastic resource,’’ he said.

It’s not hard to get Francisco talking about Elvis or Dr. King. He laughed long and hard when told a new conspiracy theory now making the rounds: That King survived the sniper shooting on the balcony at the Lorraine Motel only to be smothered by an attendant at St. Joseph’s Hospital.

He’s heard stories like this — all the second guessing — for decades.

“It got trying at times, but by and large, it was relatively painless from my personal standpoint. The mission was to provide the best service as rapidly as possible, as accurately as possible,’’ he said.

Though many historians believe King was killed in a racist conspiracy, Francisco’s work has survived the test of time. He carefully documented King’s autopsy with photos and detailed reports.

“I was aware because of all of the, quote, controversy that surrounded the assassination of (President John F.) Kennedy (shot five years before King), I was aware that that same kind of controversy was going to be present here. So, I took steps for documentation that I probably would not have done with just an ordinary case.’’

He approaches the coronavirus threat the same way, with a level head, taking it one day at a a time.

 “I saved myself a lot of headaches,’’ he said.

This story first appeared at dailymemphian.com under an exclusive use agreement with The Institute. Photos reprinted with permission of The Daily Memphian.

Marc Perrusquia
Written By

Marc Perrusquia is the director of the Institute for Public Service Reporting at the University of Memphis, where graduate students learn investigative and explanatory journalism skills working alongside professionals. He has won numerous state and national awards for government watchdog, social justice and political reporting.

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