A daughter’s promise: 85 days quarantining in a nursing home
Pandemic bonding'The best gift ever'

A daughter’s promise: 85 days quarantining in a nursing home

Local reporter moved into Charles M. Morris Nursing and Rehabilitation Center to be with her mom during COVID-19

JoAnne Klimovich Harrop (left) takes a selfie with her mother, Evelyn Klimovich, outside Rivers Casino Pittsburgh in August 2019. (Photo courtesy of the Klimovich family)
JoAnne Klimovich Harrop (left) takes a selfie with her mother, Evelyn Klimovich, outside Rivers Casino Pittsburgh in August 2019. (Photo courtesy of the Klimovich family)

JoAnne Klimovich Harrop thought she had one more day.

It had been more than six weeks since Jan. 20, 2020, the day the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported the first laboratory-confirmed case of COVID-19 in the U.S.

By March 11, more than 118,000 cases —and nearly 4,300 deaths — had been reported in 114 countries worldwide.

Harrop had visited her ailing mother, Evelyn, every day at Charles M. Morris Nursing and Rehabilitation Center since she entered the Jewish Association on Aging’s Squirrel Hill facility in April 2016. Sometimes, rather than heading back to her Scott Township home, Harrop would spend the night there, sleeping on a padded windowsill in her mother’s private room.

Harrop thought that, on March 14, JAA leaders would be weighing the decision over whether to place Charles Morris on lockdown.

Then, on March 13, while she was working in a Tarentum newsroom for her reporting job at the Tribune-Review, Harrop got a call from Tinsy Labrie, then JAA’s director of marketing and public relations.

“How soon can you get here?” Labrie asked her.

Harrop left as quickly as she could, darting down Route 28 toward the city. She entered the building at 5:59 p.m. that day — one minute before the official lockdown began.

That Friday afternoon, Harrop started living with her mother in a 250-square-foot nursing home room, a special period of bonding — as well as trepidation about the outside world — that ended with Evelyn’s unfortunate death. Though she expected lockdown to last about 15 or 20 days, Harrop was a Charles Morris resident for 85 days.

“Part of it was, I wasn’t thinking long-term. I was thinking, ‘Oh, it’s going to be two weeks,” that’s what everyone’s saying,” said Harrop, 60, a Trib reporter since 1997 and the youngest of five children raised in Greenfield. “Even being in newspapers — and we were reporting this stuff — I’m not sure any of us knew what was going on.”

“But I was used to it, I knew what it was like. It was normal for me,” she added. “I was with my mother so it didn’t matter where we were. And everyone there was so good to us.”

Harrop is a natural caretaker — warm and understanding — and a good listener. But she also was dedicated intensely to her mother’s well-being due to a promise she made years earlier, she said. After her father died, right before they closed his casket to bury him, Harrop put a note in his pocket, promising to care for her mother until the end.

Harrop is not Jewish. Raised Roman Catholic, Harrop graduated from a Catholic high school. After her father died in 2015, Harrop often took her mother to services — Evelyn liked the 11 a.m. service on Sundays — at St. Rosalia’s Church on Greenfield Avenue. During the pandemic, the two watched Catholic mass on TV.

In the spring of 2020, Harrop quickly learned the ropes of living in a facility run by a Jewish organization.

She discovered that she’d never find good, leavened bread anywhere in the building during Passover. She got the ins and outs of kosher meals, including the color designation of the plates. She found out where she could store her milk- and meat-based leftovers. And she helped distribute paper slips on Shabbat for those whose religious beliefs forbade them from using money between Friday night and Saturday night each week.

“But we put up a Christmas tree,” Harrop laughed. “Charles Morris welcomed everyone. I don’t think it was whether you were Jewish or not. They just cared about you as a person. They cared about the residents — that was No. 1.”

Debbie Winn-Horvitz, then the JAA’s president and CEO, said she and Harrop ironed out some of the finer details to ensure Harrop’s mother had the support she needed during lockdown. Harrop signed a legal document, for example, before she was allowed to stay at the nursing home for an extended period.

“(Harrop) was there all the time with her mom. They had a very, very special bond. JoAnne was literally there every morning,” Winn-Horvitz told the Chronicle. “This was a very unique situation … the bond was so strong, we felt as though we had to offer some kind of consideration.”

Harrop ate Charles Morris meals just like the other residents. (She admits it was a treat when her husband, Perry, brought her and her mother take-out a few times each week, even if he had to leave it at the door.)

For nearly three months, Harrop largely stayed inside her mother’s room; social distancing and pandemic rules at the nursing home meant people couldn’t wander past their front door. Harrop said she’d get a kick out of seeing her mom and others playing bingo spread across a hallway.

Harrop also fell into the rhythm of each week at the nursing home: bingo on Mondays, french fries — sometimes piping hot — on Wednesdays, ice cream on Fridays. On April 2, just two weeks into her stay, Harrop celebrated Opening Day for the Pittsburgh Pirates by filming her mom and other residents singing “Take Me Out to The Ball Game” in their doorways.

Rose Wyner, who moved out of Charles Morris when it closed in 2021 and today lives in Weinberg Terrace, stayed three doors down from Harrop during her 85 days in Squirrel Hill.

Wyner, who grew up in the Hill District and turns 100 on Feb. 7, has become an “adoptive mother” to Harrop, both said. Harrop affectionately calls the piano-playing near-centenarian “Rosie.”

“Her mother and me and Jo, we had our meals together,” said Wyner, who is Jewish, as she sat in her third-floor room at Weinberg Terrace with Harrop this month. “JoAnne was there every day. Every. Single. Day.”

Wyner taught Harrop to play card games. The elder was particularly good at gin rummy, she said.

“I used to win,” she laughed. “No money, though. No money!”

“During COVID,” Wyner said, pausing as if reflecting, “we became very close, very close.”

Harrop met certified nursing assistant Monique Hurt the week her mother entered Charles Morris in 2016.

Hurt wasn’t surprised when she found out Harrop had moved in.

“She was there all the time looking after her Mom,” said Hurt, a lifelong Pittsburgher who has worked for the JAA for about 10 years.

Hurt was impressed with how engrossed Harrop became in the experience. She talked with many residents — several called her “JoJo” — and joked often with the staff, Hurt said.

And the stay resonated for Hurt after Harrop left, too.

“I’ve never, ever seen a facility let a loved one move in,” Hurt said. “Then again, it was COVID, and that never happened, either.”

“It made me see my job in a whole different aspect — my bosses, the board, the whole upper management,” she added. “It made me see them in a different light.”

Harrop had always been a caretaker for her parents and, after her mother suffered a stroke in 2004, Harrop cared for her more regularly. When Evelyn Klimovich broke her hip in 2016 and required surgery, her daughter was there. When Evelyn was diagnosed with triple-negative breast cancer — a typically fast-moving strain with a dire prognosis — her daughter was there.

On June 5, 2020, Evelyn Klimovich died. She was 93.

Harrop stayed one more night in her mother’s room — alone, this time — then moved out on June 6. She stayed in quarantine for 21 more days before returning to work.

Harrop took the death hard, she said. Her mother and father were buried five years apart, to the day, and Evelyn’s passing made her ache for both parents all over again.

So, she pulled together what she learned and wrote a book on the subject — “a daughter’s promise,” which the Tribune-Review’s publishing arm released in October. Since Harrop has spent decades writing short-form nonfiction — feature articles for a newspaper — she admitted the book “was definitely a different process.”

She also had to get used to being the subject of the news for once.

“I’m more empathetic as a journalist because, now, I know what that feels like,” Harrop said. “I was used to being the one doing the interviews … but it’s good to be on both sides. You appreciate both sides of it.”

Despite the struggle of the loss — and the circumstances that surrounded it — Harrop remains thankful for her time in the nursing home, especially for Winn-Horvitz’s role in ensuring it all went as smoothly as possible.

“Debbie gave me the best gift ever — there was no better gift than time,” she said. “She didn’t know what was going to happen. But she did that.”

“And,” Harrop added. “if I could, I’d do it all over again.” PJC

Justin Vellucci is a freelance writer living in Pittsburgh.

read more: