At the onset of the coronavirus pandemic, Hills & Dales in Dubuque formed a COVID-19 response team. Should any of the organization’s clients with developmental disabilities living in a community home with 24-hour supports contract the virus, these staff members would be among the first caregivers to provide support. Alan O’Brien immediately volunteered — and soon after, he would be isolated for more than a month with one client. “I have a passion for helping people,” Alan, a personal assistant for the organization, says. “I’ve always wanted to make a difference in some way, either small or large.”
In May, a 45-year-old Hills & Dales client named
Nathan was diagnosed with COVID-19. In addition to being on the autism spectrum, Nathan has medical conditions that place him at higher risk: He is awaiting a kidney transplant, undergoes dialysis three times a week, and has had two hip replacements. In the five years Alan has worked at Hills & Dales, he and Nathan have developed a close relationship, and when Alan learned of Nathan’s diagnosis, he knew he needed to be there for his buddy. “He and I have built a really good bond,” Alan says. “He loves the outdoors and I love fishing, so we’ve connected over that. I'm also able to relate to him through humor and help alleviate some stresses. I’m really close to him — I care for him a lot.”
Although Nathan’s symptoms were mild, the diagnosis had the potential to cause numerous issues, both for Nathan and for others living in his home. First, there was the potential for transmission to other clients and staff. As he continued to test positive for COVID-19, Nathan had to remain isolated in his room, with Alan always present in full personal protective equipment to help with his physical and emotional needs. Then, there was Nathan’s autism. He has a hard time dealing with transitions and new situations, so Alan was unsure how he would cope with the isolation. “That’s a difficult situation for anybody let alone a person who has autism,” Alan says. “I explained to him as best I could what was going on. He really accepted that he had to be quarantined, but every few days he would ask, ‘Do I still have to be in my room?’”
During the isolation, Alan and Nathan found ways to stay occupied and in good spirits. They drew together, did puzzles, sang songs and watched Nathan’s favorite show, “Pokémon.” “We would feed off each other’s energy, so to speak,” Alan says. “I’d say, ‘Who am I, Nate?’ He’d say, ‘Big dog!’ I’d say, ‘Who are you Nate?’ ‘Little dog!’" All the while, Alan would vigilantly disinfect the room, cleaning every surface that was touched.
Nathan received about four positive coronavirus tests before he finally tested negative. In total, he and Alan were isolated for 36 days. It was one of the longest periods of infection Nathan’s physician had encountered. “When I heard about the negative test, I was just elated, and he was ecstatic,” Alan says. “Everyone missed him, and he missed everyone. Initially, it hurt a lot when Nathan was diagnosed, but I was glad I got to be the one to help him through this process.”
Even after over a month quarantined with Nathan, Alan never tested positive for COVID-19. Still, Alan says there was little that could have prepared him for seeing someone he cares about face such a serious illness. “One of my colleagues told me, ‘You’ve never complained one time,’” Alan says. "Who am I to complain? Nathan goes to dialysis three times a week and was fighting a life-threatening illness. Nathan never complained one time. He had a right to complain; I have no right to complain about anything. He knew we were a team and would get through this.”