By the time Tango Jessee moved to Florida to be closer to her daughters, her memory and motor functions had started to falter.
It was understandable for her age, said one of her daughters, Robbie Jessee. But soon came signs that something more serious was afoot.
Her mother was normally a Type A personality, but she didn’t know how much money was in her bank account. She struggled with balance. She jotted down shopping lists that devolved into gibberish. She’d stop in the middle of Walmart, wondering what her scribbles meant.
A doctor eventually diagnosed her with late-onset vascular dementia, her daughter said, or a decline in cognitive function caused by inadequate blood flow to the brain. That’s how, in 2016, Jessee ended up moving into Freedom Square of Seminole.
The sprawling retirement community has surfaced as a hot spot for COVID-19, the illness caused by the novel coronavirus that is particularly deadly for seniors. Dozens of residents have tested positive for the virus, and 95 patients were recently evacuated from the community’s Seminole Pavilion Rehabilitation nursing home.
So far, eight residents have died. Jessee, 92, was one of them.
Her care at the facility was mostly top notch, her daughters said. But the facility management’s disjointed communication in the weeks leading up to their mother’s death on Thursday made a tragic situation worse. They question whether Freedom Square gave her a thorough enough medical evaluation after she got sick, and whether the information the facility relayed about her health was accurate in the days before she was evacuated to St. Anthony’s Hospital in St. Petersburg.
“I just feel like she went to St. Anthony’s in a lot worse shape than I was led to believe," Robbie Jessee, 62, said from her home in Kentucky. "It was melee, and it didn’t have to be that way.”
Jessee’s daughters have joined a growing chorus of Freedom Square residents and their family members scrutinizing the facility’s management of the outbreak. Several have told the Tampa Bay Times they were left in the dark as the illness spread through the facility.
The communication had grown so fraught that on Friday, Executive Director Michael Mason apologized after families complained he was praising himself in daily updates.
Responding to questions about the Jessee family’s account, Jacquie McKenna, Freedom Square’s director of administrative services, said the facility could not comment on specific residents or their care because of health privacy laws.
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“Our residents’ health and safety has always been our top priority,” she said on behalf of Mason. “We are communicating with residents and families as quickly as possible in this evolving, challenging time. We remain dedicated to doing all we can to protect our residents from this terrible virus and our thoughts are with all of our residents and their families who have been impacted by this disease.”
For Robbie Jessee and her sister, Pam Jessee, it didn’t feel like it. A couple weeks ago, the facility called Robbie Jessee to say that her mother was coughing and had a fever, and that they were going to test her for COVID-19. The next day, while awaiting the result, the nursing home said her mother’s condition had improved.
Then, the test came back positive. They asked if Robbie Jessee, who served as her mother’s power-of-attorney and healthcare surrogate, wanted to move her mother to a hospital or keep her at Freedom Square. Based on the report that her mother was doing better, Robbie Jessee opted to keep her at the nursing home, where she was comfortable.
Two days later, on April 17, pavilion residents were evacuated to various local hospitals. The facility kept changing the location of where Tango Jessee was being taken, her daughters said: first it was hospice, then it was Morton Plant Hospital in Clearwater and, finally, St. Anthony’s.
"It was very traumatic,” Pam Jessee, 72, said of the day’s confusion.
Doctors there told Robbie Jessee that her mother wasn’t eating and was aspirating everything into her lungs. They also diagnosed her with pneumonia. Robbie Jessee got the sense from the hospital staff that she’d had it for several days. If that were the case, she said she would have asked for her mother to be hospitalized immediately.
“I really question how sick she was when they (Freedom Square) called me before and we made the decision to leave her there," she said.
Her mother’s health continued to decline, and she was moved to Suncoast Hospice Care Center North Pinellas on Tuesday. She died Thursday, with a hospice nurse and doctor by her side, Robbie Jessie said. Because of the contagious virus, her daughters couldn’t be there.
Tango Jessee was “a most remarkable woman,” Pam Jessee said. She was born one of 14 children and grew up in St. Paul, Virginia, a one-stoplight coal town in the Appalachian mountains. She tended to the home while her husband worked. He died of a heart attack at 39, leaving Tango Jessee a widow at 37. She never remarried.
In her 40s, she went to community college and earned her degree in early childhood education. It was a big deal to go to college as an older woman in rural Virginia, said Robbie Jessie, who was in high school at the time.
She was “just a real go-getter as far as her work went,” she said. "It was something I really admired.”
Tango Jessee went on to work for an education cooperative and later managed public housing. In retirement, she stayed involved in her Southern Baptist church, joined the Red Hat Society and tore through books and newspaper crosswords. She was an excellent cook who made chocolates pretty enough to go in a box and butterscotch pie that Pam Jessee still thinks about.
In 2014, she moved to Florida to join her daughters, Pam in Largo and Robbie, at the time, in North Redington Beach. She loved sand sculptures and boat parades and watching fireworks at the beach — Sunshine State quirks she’d never experienced in Virginia.
They didn’t have much time together before the dementia set in. But her daughters visited her all the time at Freedom Square, and laughed with her in moments of lucidity.
Robbie Jessee later moved to Kentucky to be closer to her children and grandchildren as she battled metastatic breast cancer. But she still talked to her mother regularly, most recently a few weeks ago.
“I’m not sure she knew who it was but I was a friendly voice,” she said, "and that’s enough for me.”
Staff writers Mark Puente and Paul Guzzo contributed to this report.
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