Over the course of three days last week, residents of the Martha Jo Leslie State Veterans Home in Kosciusko were finally able to reunite with family members after COVID-19 had caused a complete closure of the facility to all but essential personnel.
Operation Family Reunion was no simple undertaking. Staff had to schedule the two-visitor maximum, two-hour visits to ensure that they could occur with social distancing in place. They also had to set up a COVID testing system to prevent someone from inadvertently bringing the virus back into the facility. The staff also prepared and served lunch for each visiting group to enjoy with their veteran.
Veterans were each seated at a table, eagerly awaiting the arrival of their visitors. As family and friends entered the dining area, there were tears, smiles and many, many hugs.
Above is a slideshow of the emotional reunions and here are just a few of the stories we heard detailing the relationships, challenges of separation during COVID-19, and the joys of reunion:
Leroy and Gail Funderburk
Leroy and Gail Funderburk were able to reunite just days before their 17th wedding anniversary.
The pair, both widowed at the time, met at the bank where Gail worked. She, not realizing his wife had passed away, inadvertently made him cry asking about his spouse. To apologize, she sent him a card.
Soon, Leroy was showing up in Gail’s line at the bank several times a week, purportedly needing to cash a check.
“The rest is history,” Gail said with a laugh during in a telephone interview with The Star-Herald from their Columbus-area home.
Gail said Leroy rarely spoke of his Army service in Korea, except to tell her about the customs of the foreign land from which he returned in 1956.
After retirement Leroy and Gail spent their days exploring the area, often driving along random rural roads and talking.
About four years ago, Leroy began displaying symptoms of dementia, Gail said. After Leroy disappeared one day, he had an in-patient evaluation, but returned home until doctors indicated it was probably time for him to be placed in a supervised setting for his own safety. It is a decision that still makes his wife cry.
After time in a Starkville facility, Leroy was moved into the state veterans home back in September 2020.
Although Gail tried to keep in touch with her husband via phone, it was increasingly difficult, and using facetime or zoom impossible, giving last week’s in-person visit that much more impact.
“He can’t hear very well, and he knows nothing about a smart phone. I’d talk to him, but he didn’t talk back,” she said of the difficult attempts to connect with Leroy.
But the in-person visit was a wonderfully different experience for the couple.
“It was very emotional. It was absolutely awesome. I couldn’t keep my hands off him. He was in a good mood and responding to me. I wanted to just hug him and hug him and hug him,” said Gail. “It was unreal. It was like we were really together again.”
She now waits to see if the reinstituted closure will be lifted for good next week.
“It was a long time coming. I look forward to when I can see him as often as they’ll let me. I think it will help him so much to walk holding hands and having a conversation together,” she said. “It meant the world to me to see him have a little life about him and a little emotion. It was heavenly.”
Tex and Takenya Singleton
As Takenya Singleton walked into the dining room at the state veterans home last Wednesday, her father, Tex Singleton, who raised her after he and his wife divorced, burst into tears as a wide smile spread across his face at the same time.
Takenya hugged her father, sat down beside him and wiped tears from his eyes as a staff member ran to get a napkin allowing him to wipe his face.
Tex, the sixth of 10 children born in South Carolina, was drafted into the Army after his 1967 high school graduation. After two years of service as a helicopter mechanic in Vietnam, he was honorably discharged.
After the military, he worked for South Central Bell in Florida before he was transferred and moved to Yazoo City. He worked for what eventually became AT&T for 32 years before his retirement. He married Takenya’s mother in 1976 and following their divorce was married a second time for a few years, but Takenya is his only child.
Following a stroke, Tex moved in with his daughter and one of his grandchildren, both of whom took care of him. As his granddaughter headed off to college, Tex had a fall that caused a hip break, resulting in his move into the state veterans home.
“I had to make the tough decision at the end of July of last year,” Takenya told The Star-Herald. “Us always being together since I was young made it very hard.”
But she was comforted by the reputation of the Kosciusko facility.
“He loves it. He says, ‘They treat me better than the Rockefellers,’” she said. “Although it is the furthest from me, it has a very good reputation, so it is worth it.”
Takenya has been able to see her dad via smart phone, but also when he has been taken to a facility where she works for physical therapy. Although they had to maintain social distance, she was at least able to be in the same room with him, unlike family of many other residents.
She said his grandchildren have been able to facetime with her father, but he misses his siblings who used to be able to visit from Florida and other locations from time to time.
“Hopefully, once everything opens up, they can come see him and I can take him home for a few days to spend with us all,” she said.
In the meantime, though, being able to hug, sit next to, and share a meal with her father was special. She also was able to watch him interact with her three children, Jashawn, Tajai, and Tamora Shelton, via a zoom call her son set up.
“I reflected to when he used to come to school and have lunch with me,” she said. “Hopefully, there will be more of these visits. The separation really makes you appreciate the little things.”
Joe and Rebecca Doty
Kosciusko residents Joe and Rebecca Doty have known about the state veterans home for years, even performing there with their ballroom dance group to entertain residents in years past.
Rebecca moved Joe into the facility only a couple of weeks ago after his condition worsened to the point where she felt she could no longer care for him at home, and concerned about what would happen if she, herself, fell ill.
The couple met in the fall of 1955 when she was a student at The W, he at Mississippi State. Roommates and fraternity brothers made the introduction.
“It was a fast romance,” remembers Rebecca. “We met in the fall and married the next summer. Joe went into the Army the week after our honeymoon.”
The couple lived in Mineral Wells, Texas, where Joe administered GED tests for the Army under a civilian supervisor. Their first son was born there, but the couple eventually returned to Kosciusko and had two more children while taking over the family-owned furniture store when Joe’s father retired.
The pair loved to ballroom dance and — over the course of 20 years — traveled in a motor home to visit most of the United States – even Alaska — with four or five other couples.
Joe was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s Disease about seven years ago, but it was only recently that his condition deteriorated to the point where Rebecca felt it best for him to be in full time care. She is grateful his new home is right in her own town.
“I was so lucky we have this VA home here in Kosciusko,” she told The Star-Herald. “It is run so nice. They are up on everything and keeping them all safe and going.”
Although it has only been a couple of weeks, Rebecca said the transition has been a difficult one.
“We were used to being together and going places, but it got to where I was having to do more and more for him and I realized I could not take care of him,” she said. “He misses me, and I miss him.”
Events like the reunion last week are helping them adjust, as has the opportunity to have video calls with Joe when she cannot be there in person. She said it was a staff member who made the suggestion and helped facilitate the call on Joe’s end.
“He could see me, and it really thrilled him to be able to do that,” she said. “They (home staff) have been very compassionate.”