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Nursing home social worker dies of coronavirus after working 10 days straight

Catherine Drouin (right) and her husband Dennis Drouin. Catherine Drouin died April 27 at the Holy Family Hospital in Methuen from COVID-19.
Catherine Drouin (right) and her husband Dennis Drouin. Catherine Drouin died April 27 at the Holy Family Hospital in Methuen from COVID-19.

A social worker at a Chelmsford nursing home who died from the coronavirus last week is being remembered by family members for her unwavering devotion to her patients and their families — even volunteering to work 10 days straight while the disease spread across the state.

Catherine Drouin, 69, of Methuen, who worked for more than two decades as a social worker at the Palm Center nursing home, died April 27 at Holy Family Hospital in Methuen, family members said Sunday.

“She was always above and beyond in her job; she was never selfish,” said her husband of 42 years, Dennis Drouin. “She was always so caring, she never stopped, even when she got sick.”

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The Chelmsford facility is operated by Genesis HealthCare, based in Kennett Square, Pa.

Dr. Richard Feifer, Genesis’s chief medical officer, said in a statement Sunday that Genesis’s employees are “true heroes as they put their own safety at risk for their patients and residents who they truly love.”

The statement didn’t refer to Drouin by name, referring to her as their beloved social services director.

“She was a well-loved colleague of more than 20 years and the entire community is mourning her loss, along with many residents who were also taken by this terrible virus,” Feifer said in the statement. “Our thoughts and prayers go out to all those impacted by COVID-19, especially the families of those that passed away.”

Feifer thanked the National Guard for testing all of the home’s residents, whether they were symptomatic or asymptomatic, as well as employees.

As of Sunday, 53 residents and 46 staff members have tested positive for COVID-19 at Palm Center, Feifer said, while 29 residents have died. Numerous residents and staff members tested positive despite being asymptomatic, he said.

Palm Center has been diligent on visitation restrictions, and followed protocols and guidelines for the coronavirus issued by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, as well as the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, Feifer said.

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The first confirmed case of coronavirus at the facility was reported April 2, according to the state. Mobile testing began at the facility on April 7 for residents, and on April 23 for staff. The state delivered protective equipment on March 31, April 5, and April 16.

Workers at Palm Center have been wearing full personal protective equipment since March 26, according to Lori Mayer, a Genesis spokeswoman.

The facility has also conducted screening of residents and patients for symptoms, at first daily, and now three times a day, she said. Staff are screened and have their temperatures taken when they enter the building.

Visitation restrictions are also in place, except under some circumstances such as end-of-life situations, she said. Outside medical appointments have been cancelled, except for necessary and time-sensitive visits.

Drouin, in a March Facebook post, urged people to take the coronavirus seriously, particularly because of the threat posed to people with conditions like autoimmune diseases.

“I urge you to think twice before passing judgment and thinking our nation is overreacting to the extra measures being taken to curb the spread of this virus,” Drouin wrote. “YOU might be able to recover from it no problem, however carry it to someone with an autoimmune disease and that individual won’t be as lucky.”

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A few days later, Drouin posted an image from outside Palm Center: a photograph of a white sheet with the message “HEROES WORK HERE!” in large handwritten letters, surrounded by drawings of red hearts.

Drouin was a constant volunteer at soup kitchens and a call taker at a local women’s shelter, said Lisa Carter, 58, of St. Marys, Ga.

Drouin began working with seniors in 1977, Carter said, following the death of their grandmother. Drouin was devastated by the death, Carter said, but turned around and began volunteering at a nursing home in Methuen, where she was paired with an elderly German woman who apparently didn’t speak English.

“After about three months of Cathy visiting her, they found out she could speak English,” Carter said, “to the people she wanted to speak English to.”

Drouin continued working in nursing homes, in various roles, until she decided to go back to school and train as a social worker about 30 years ago, Carter said in a phone interview.

“It was the interaction with the residents” she found fulfilling, Carter said. Acquaintances, friends, colleagues — so many had known Drouin through her life’s work and posted remembrances about her online, Carter said.

“When Nana died, she just really wanted to give of herself,” Carter said of her sister. “I couldn’t believe how many people she has touched.”

Dennis Drouin met his wife in July 1975, when he was a member of the Knights of Columbus and would call out numbers at bingo nights in Methuen.

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Drouin’s dedication to seniors was clear, he said. She would take him to meet nursing home residents and even brought him to have dinner with the German woman, Frieda.

The couple had two sons, one of whom is the father of their grandson, Colton. The little boy turns 3 later this month, Dennis Drouin said, and his wife looked forward to celebrating his birthday.

“He was my wife’s pride and joy, and the apple of her eye, other than my two boys,” Dennis Drouin said.

Drouin got sick April 8, and went to the hospital several days later, then spent about two weeks sedated and on a ventilator, Dennis Drouin said. Her condition worsened, and she was placed on dialysis.

Hospital staff would arrange FaceTime calls so Drouin’s loved ones could speak with her, even if she couldn’t respond.

“It was the hardest thing to not be there to hold her hand,” Dennis Drouin said. “I told her my little grandson loved her, and I told her I loved her.”

Dennis Drouin said he is planning to pick up his wife's ashes from the funeral home on Monday.

He and his wife would take long rides on his Harley-Davidson, he said. Now he is thinking of spreading her ashes at some of their favorite spots — and keeping some with him, always.

"She was the best thing that ever happened to me," he said. "And I am going to miss her so bad. She was my soulmate, my best friend."

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Because of social distancing rules, funeral arrangements haven’t been set, he said. But the family is looking ahead to when the public health crisis is over — and they can truly celebrate her life.

Until then, Dennis Drouin thinks of his grandson, Colton, who is too young to understand what is happening.

So Dennis Drouin shares a message with the little boy.

Drouin loved dragonflies; her urn is purple, and decorated with silver images of the insect. And Dennis Drouin said he tells his grandson that whenever he sees a dragonfly, he should never swat it. That dragonfly could be an angel; or even Colton’s loving grandmother paying him a visit.

" ‘She will always be there to protect you,’ " Dennis Drouin tells the boy.


John Hilliard can be reached at john.hilliard@globe.com.