Two years and six months ago Riverdale residents under lockdown caught their first glimmer of hope in a long while when it was announced a vaccine to the Covid-19 virus was available and would be distributed across the city. The first resident in line at the Hebrew Home to get his shot was 79-year-old Kelley Dixon, who was also the first nursing home resident in the state with the vaccination.
The now 81-year-old Canton, Ohio born man and former professional baseball player said getting his vaccine wasn’t a hard choice to make.
“It was either do or don’t,” Dixon said. “I’m sitting here, so it was do.”
Dixon volunteered to be the first resident to get the vaccine and had no qualms over being a “guinea pig.” He barely paid attention when the Walgreens pharmacist gave him his shot and when it was over he hadn’t felt any pain or side effects at all.
Walgreens helped distribute the first dose of the vaccine to residents in December 2020, administering shots to the Hebrew Home’s population of roughly 600 residents and 1,000 staff members over the course of three days.
“I thought the doctors were Supermans,” Dixon said of the effort. “You know, because it didn’t take long at all. They knew what was going to happen and they put aside what would be needed and I still don’t know how they did that.”
According to Dixon, Dr. Zachary Palace, the Hebrew’s Home medical director, was initially skeptical of the vaccination. When he took the vaccine after Dixon did he apparently had to sit down in the area for people who felt funny afterwards. Dixon stood watching for 10 to 15 minutes thinking, “What did I do? Did I make a mistake?”
Dixon was perplexed by those who refused to take the vaccine. He figured people would be clamoring to get theirs, and noted that those who didn’t “aren’t around anymore.” He believed his odds of survival would drop without the vaccine.
“Who am I to question the medical field? We’re talking worldwide here. I can give you an argument, I can tell you you’re full of it, but I’m not really qualified,” he said.
Dixon has always had a high regard and trust for the medical industry. He views it as necessary, saying that if something happens to him he’ll go to the nearest hospital.
There was a point in time where the Hebrew Home was the leader of deaths from Covid compliations in the Bronx. In May 2020 it was reported by The Riverdale Press there had been 63 such deaths.
When David V. Pomeranz, RiverSpring Health chief operating officer, dealt with a Legionnaires’ disease outbreak in 2017, they were not expecting to go through a pandemic just five years later.
Pomeranz told The Riverdale Press about how the period of time will be one that stays with them for the rest of their careers, believing it to be the “most significant crisis our generation will ever face.”
“We saw people do things they never thought they’d have to do,” Pomeranz said of the staff. “They did it bravely without bounds.”
There was a certain bond that the staff established from coming in work everyday and working together during the pandemic, Pomeranz said.
Because of strict rules regarding social distancing many families were not able to be with their loved ones when they passed or even at their funeral.
Every morning the Hebrew Home would hold a mini-prayer service for the families of the people who were lost via Zoom or cell phone. The staff wanted the families to know they were not alone.
Staffers and aides who knew the residents best would speak and say nice things about them.
“It was very meaningful to the families to know their parents were treated with respect and dignity even at the end of life,” Pomeranz said. “That felt important. We were respecting life and celebrating all life’s that were shortened, life’s well-lived and with achievements. When things were so dark, you needed to take that energy in a way that was positive.”
Pomeranz worked with the state to find a loophole that would allow families to get around the regulations that forbid them from visiting the families and a drive-in was approved.
They had a walkie-talkie system that allowed residents to talk to their families as they drove past about eight feet away from the facility. The families created signs like “we love you, grandma” and “we love you, grandpa.” There were even instances where families held up babies to the residents for the first time. It brought smiles to a lot of peoples faces and was just as meaningful to the staff as it was to the residents.
One theme that stuck out to Pomeranz was just how resilient the residents were.
“The most calm people during those times were the residents. They lived through wars, diseases. They were a source of comfort for staff who were very anxious and nervous.”
The Hebrew Home at Riverdale was one of the first to get the vaccine due to their vulnerable population. When the vaccine was announced, Pomeranz was euphoric, saying “I’ve never seen anybody so excited to take a shot in their arm.”
The Hebrew Home has come a long way since being the leader of deaths from Covid complications in May 2020. Last year there were only 31 reported deaths from Covid complications. This year there’s only been three, with all occurring outside of the home, according to data from the New York state site.
“It’s a different world today than it was in March 2020,” Pomeranz said. “We see a very different landscape of infection.”
Pomeranz said infections now are non-consequential, with residents bouncing back from it as a matter of a nuisance rather than a consequence.
Although not as much as he did in the height of the pandemic, Dixon still wears his mask regularly, particularly when he goes outside.
Dixon said that when another booster inevitably comes out, his room will still be there, and he’ll be the first one to volunteer again.
“I’ll do whatever’s necessary to get out of here alive. I like being alive, you know. I want to live another 80 years or more,” Dixon said.