By Joe Bollig
TONGANOXIE — The carbon monoxide levels had risen to unsafe levels inside the Legend Healthcare facility here early on March 4.
The gas meant that residents could not stay inside — and subzero temperatures meant they could not stay outside.
Director of nursing Lisa Drake knew there was only one thing they could do: evacuate to another place.
“When I first started thinking about calling the churches,” she said, “I thought, ‘This is a no-brainer. I know who we’re calling.’”
At 4:45 a.m., she called Father Mark Goldasich, pastor of Sacred Heart Parish and son of Angeline Goldasich, one of the Legend’s residents.
“He answered right away,” said Drake.
She told him the situation. Could the nursing home patients be evacuated to Sacred Heart Parish?
“He said, ‘Absolutely. I’ll be glad to help. I’ll meet you up there. I’ll be on my way right now,’” she said.
Before long, the 68 residents, plus the staff, began to arrive by school buses and vehicles from other nursing homes, and ambulances from various agencies in the surrounding area.
The Tonganoxie Fire Department, the Police Department, as well as fire departments from surrounding jurisdictions, also aided in the evacuation.
It seemed almost providential that the Legend evacuees found refuge in the Sacred Heart of Jesus.
And right on schedule, Father Goldasich — also editor of The Leaven — celebrated 7:30 a.m. Mass. And he had a chance to say hi to his mother, who is due to celebrate her 101st birthday next month.
Alarms first sounded at about 11:45 p.m. on March 3, said Vince McGowen, the Chicago-based vice president of operations for Aperion, the post-acute care provider that owns and operates the facility.
Carbon monoxide had been detected in one part of the building. They vented some hallways and turned off the gas to a newly installed water heater. By 2:30 a.m., the levels were dropping.
But then, they began to rise again.
“Generally, what we like to do is to shelter in place if we can and see if we can remedy the problem without having to transport [frail seniors],” said McGowen.
The Tonganoxie Fire Department, which had been there earlier, returned and determined the carbon monoxide levels too high for that option. Soon after 4 a.m., the decision was made to evacuate.
Firefighters, police, ambulance crews, nursing home staff and a few parish volunteers quickly rearranged furniture and other items to make room for the Legend residents in Sacred Heart’s classrooms and parish center.
“[They] had coffee and juice for us,” said Drake. “They gave us [the worship space] and a few other smaller rooms to do small group activities. They had some church volunteers that grabbed their bingo equipment and we had a huge group of residents playing bingo.
“They also had this fabulous inflatable TV projector screen so the residents could eat lunch and watch a movie. Our cook . . . brought the lunch from our facility, but [the parish] allowed us to use their kitchen to make everything fresh and hot.”
Father Goldasich was impressed by the work of the Legend staff, the Tonganoxie Fire Department, police and other area agencies with the ease and professionalism with which they moved all the people and equipment.
“I was very impressed with all they had to move from the nursing center: carts with the meds, patients with oxygen, medical charts, and the kitchen people who brought breakfast and lunch,” said Father Goldasich. “It was just a huge undertaking.”
They truly had a sense of “calm purpose” and they knew what they had to do, he said.
Back at the nursing home, Patrick Meyer of Pride Mechanical found the source of the carbon monoxide was a venting problem with the furnace, which was fixed.
By around 1 p.m., the nursing center staff and emergency personnel were able to start moving Legend residents back to the facility; by 2:30 p.m., they were all back in their own rooms, safe and warm.
McGowen thanked the many people and entities who assisted with the evacuation and return of the residents. He thanked the Tonganoxie parish “from the bottom of his heart” for use of their space and all their assistance.
“All in all,” he concluded, “it was a pretty good day for a bad day.”