Hannah Neary, local democracy reporter
A care home which was hit badly by a coronavirus outbreak has surprised its residents with a white Christmas.
Staff at Cwm Cartref Care Home in Pontardawe treated residents to their own winter wonderland on Tuesday by hiring a snow machine.
Care home manager Melanie Harris said: “We’ve only got a small family left here now but our aim is to make Christmas as special as we possibly can this year.
“The home was hit quite badly with Covid around November, resulting in a loss of 14 of our residents.
“Morale in the home has been very low as you can imagine. Residents have been very much kept to their rooms with strict infection control measures taking place.”
Due to government restrictions, friends and family will not be able to visit residents at Cwm Cartref over the festive period.
“We’ve watched our residents’ personalities change since March. Some residents here have forgotten who their family members are,” said Melanie.
“I’ve contacted all family members and told them they can’t come and visit over Christmas. They’re not even allowed a window visit which is horrific.”
Melanie and her team are doing all they can to make the home feel special.
They have set a goal of ensuring every family member gets a video call with residents over Christmas Day and Boxing Day and they’ll be wearing fancy dress and throwing a small party.
They have also put Christmas trees up inside the home and hung hundreds of lights outside.
Melanie, 54, who has managed the home for five years, said the people who live their are not residents but her “extended family”.
Ever since she started her role as manager, she has slept with her mobile phone under her pillow so her staff can get hold of her at all times.
To protect her residents from coronavirus, Melaine decided to stop visits and new admissions to the home two weeks before national lockdown in March.
For months, Cwm Cartref remained free from Covid-19. But on November 9, 33 of Melanie’s 43 residents tested positive for the virus and 14 of them died within three weeks.
One of the residents who passed away was 92-year-old war veteran Stanley Crawley, who just weeks before had been reunited with his daughter, Susan Clement, in the home’s outdoor meeting area.
Melanie’s mother-in-law also lives at Cwm Cartref and caught the virus but she survived.
“She was very ill. She contracted Covid and I prepared my family for the worst.”
To cope with the outbreak, Melanie, a grandmother-of-two, moved into the care home for ten days, working 18-hour shifts.
“My husband was worried about me because I moved in and stayed. I didn’t go home, my family didn’t see me.
“It was a worry for them but I just kept on thinking, ‘If I wobble, which I did a couple of times, then how do I expect my staff to carry on?’.
“If I looked as if I was not coping then how could I expect staff to keep walking through that door, which was covid-ridden throughout, when they have young families of their own at home?”
Due to government guidelines, Melanie and her colleagues had to be in the same room as family members while they said their goodbyes to residents.
To keep everyone safe, staff had to ensure visitors wore PPE and remind them not to touch their loved ones during their final hours.
“I had to stand there watching them say goodbye, telling them not to touch them or give them a cwtch. I shouldn’t have been part of that moment.
“That moment was not for me to witness. I had to stand their supervising.”
She said she still has staff members who are off work suffering from “post-covid stress” after witnessing “continuous loss of life”.
“I’m worried it will cause them further stress in the future. Are they going to need counselling? Absolutely.
“I feel as if I’ve become a counsellor. Not only am I counselling family members I’m also counselling the residents and myself.
“My role has taken some different turns along theses past seven weeks.”
During this time, many of Melanie’s staff also tested positive or had to self-isolate and so agency workers and the local council had to step in.
“It was just awful because we were under so much pressure,” she said.
“There was a period of three weeks when we didn’t have staff.”
Melanie says the social care staff who “senselessly” came to help out at the home during this time “stepped up to the mark” and thanks to them she managed to overcome the ordeal.
She cannot remember the last time she had a day off from work but hopes to spend some time at home over Christmas.
Melanie said “nobody will ever have the answer” to why there was a coronavirus outbreak at Cwm Cartref in November.
She said the home was “religiously” testing staff, checking temperatures, supervising hand-washing and strictly using PPE.
The outbreak was discovered following weekly testing on November 6 when a care worker tested positive for Covid-19.
Melanie then made sure all residents were tested and by the following weekend, two had died from the virus.
Cwm Cartref Care Home now has no new coronavirus cases but remains within the 28-day “red alert” period and is unable to accept visitors or admissions.
“Right now, we’re all still working day-to-day just to make sure the 28 residents we’ve got here are looked after to the standards they should be looked after.”
Melanie hopes staff will soon be given a vaccine against the deadly disease and despite experiencing physical and emotional exhaustion over the last few months, she remains positive.
“It can’t get any worse. The damage has been done. We’ve lost lives, we’ve lost our family.
“We have to pick ourselves up now and move forward. I just hope 2021 gives us a different outlook on life once the vaccine is out there.
“I’m not the same person I was eight weeks ago. This has 100 per cent changed me. My outlook on life is different.
“There were times during this period where I have wobbled and I did feel that I couldn’t carry on. I didn’t think I was strong enough.
“But what it has shown me is that I am strong and I’m able to move on.
“My advice to any other manager would be to hang in there and just take on all the support you can. You will get through it.
“If I couldn’t talk about this then I think I would crack up. I would not be able to hold all this in.”