Longtime Santa Clarita Valley resident David Chalberg is used to taking long walks within Oakmont of Valencia community, where he resides. That all quickly changed in mid-March when the Oakmont community and its residents went into lockdown amid the coronavirus pandemic.
For Chalberg, 91, the pandemic was hard to grasp at first, as he has advanced dementia, but it would soon become an important part of his own story.
Chalberg was a junior high and high school teacher in the SCV for 30 years, teaching history, English, drama and photography at a few of the schools in the William S. Hart Union High School District through the years.
“He’s a brainiac, so it hits harder because they’re so intellectually driven,” Chalberg’s daughter Chris Morley said, referring to his dementia.
Chalberg and Morley have been involved with the Oakmont community in the SCV since the first location opened nearly five years ago — Chalberg as a resident, first at Oakmont of Santa Clarita, then later moving to Oakmont of Valencia’s memory care community, and Morley as an exercise instructor.
“I’m a five-day-a-week daughter. I mean, I’m there all the time,” Morley said.
That’s why it was a difficult adjustment for Morley when the Oakmont community went into self-isolation amid the growing health concerns.
“We got hit by two folds because our grandkids were told no more school for three weeks at that time, so I’m thinking, ‘Yippee, we get the grandkids all the time,’” Morley said.
Instead, she quickly discovered she wouldn’t be able to see them, though they live only 6 miles apart. “That’s how innocent it was in the beginning and how fast things changed.”
When Chalberg went into quarantine, Morley remembered thinking, “Life as we know it is changing very rapidly.”
On April 9, Chalberg tested positive for COVID-19 and was moved to Oakmont’s COVID ward, which had been set up in some of the unoccupied apartments in the community.
“It hit very, very hard because of his age,” Morley said, adding that his dementia didn’t help matters. “It’s very hard for this population to keep explaining to them what’s going on. Like my dad would say, ‘What’s going on? How come everyone’s wearing a mask?’ You’d say the story over and over.”
Because he had been a history teacher, Morley used the 1917 Spanish Flu to explain the situation to Chalberg.
Though Morley realized at that point that she would have to relinquish her oversight, she still made arrangements for hospice, which allowed him to receive the care he needed without needing to go to the hospital if his condition worsened.
“I’m not sure people on average realize what we’re doing right now,” said Dale Shagrin, director of education for Care One Hospice, who provided Chalberg’s care. “Hospice is in the position of providing care and comfort to people that have a life-limiting illness.”
Now, they’ve also taken on the role of advocate for their patients, Shagrin added.
“We have an opportunity to be the conduit for a higher level of communication and care for people,” Shagrin said. “It’s something that I’ve never seen to this level before, because, normally, the family can control things and be there.”
While Chalberg’s first few days following the positive result weren’t easy, Morley still considered his symptoms “mild, comparatively speaking.”
“He never had a temperature, he never had a cough,” she said. “That’s the crazy part of this virus is there’s just so many different symptoms to it.”
Before he had tested positive, Morley had been practicing breathing exercises with Chalberg over the phone, and coincidentally, it was the respiratory aspects of the virus that caused problems for him.
Many Chalberg’s age have a “do not resuscitate” order, meaning they cannot be intubated or receive CPR, making these the most critical aspects of the virus.
Paramedics were called twice, but both times Chalberg was able to stay at Oakmont under close observation.
After struggling with shortness of breath for a few days, Chalberg’s symptoms subsided. He remained asymptomatic for two weeks before receiving his first negative test result, spending much of that time confused as to why he was in isolation.
Though a nurse would call with daily updates, Chalberg didn’t have access to a phone while in isolation, which was the worst part, according to Morley.
“The staff was good about trying to get a phone call in, but I just couldn’t pick up the phone (and call him),” she said.
For Morley, it’s the staff at Oakmont that made the difference.
“The sacrifices that the staff are making are just unbelievable to me,” she said. “The level of care and love that they put into these folks is amazing … They’re just a rock-solid team. I just don’t have enough words for what all of them have sacrificed to do this.”
And, it is this support that Margie Veis, executive director at Oakmont of Valencia, said has kept the staff going.
“Throughout this pandemic, Oakmont of Valencia has taken every step possible to keep residents and team members safe and healthy,” Veis said. “They’ve gone above and beyond in providing attentive care and creative social engagement opportunities, while also recognizing the commitment of the everyday heroes — the dedicated team members.”
After a long 18 days, Chalberg walked out of isolation to a procession of clapping and smiling Oakmont staff lining the walls.
“David Chalberg has been a treasured member of our Oakmont family for many years, and we are grateful for his recovery,” Veis added. “We appreciate the support from the family, team members and the community at large.”
A week later, Chalberg is thrilled to be back in his apartment with his own things, telling Morley he’s “content” during their now daily phone conversations.
Chalberg said he spends his time watching television and reading — “What else is there to do?” he asked, chuckling.
When asked how he felt to have survived such a deadly disease, he replied, “I have no idea (what happened) a few weeks ago. I’ve forgotten everything.”
“He’ll say to me, ‘Now, what was this virus that you said I had?’” Morley added in a separate phone conversation.
Still, Chalberg is in good spirits, hoping to celebrate his 92nd birthday in July with his family.
“I am surviving,” he said.