Trailblazing zookeeper among thousands who've died from COVID in nursing homes

Posted at 1:15 PM, Dec 29, 2020

Mary Wilson was the first African American female zookeeper to ever be hired at the Maryland Zoo. She spent decades caring for animals in their time of need, but died alone in a Baltimore hospital bed after contracting COVID-19 in a nursing home early this year.

"She set an example for so many other women of color to be hired," her daughter Sharron Jackson said.

From chimpanzees, to elephants, to leopards, Wilson was known for the level of compassion and care she brought with her to work each day.

"Mom is mostly noted for her bravery, she had no fear of the animals," daughter Sharron added.

After four decades working at the zoo, Wilson retired, only to be diagnosed with Alzheimer's.

Jackson spent four years taking care of her mom at home, but eventually had to move her to a long-term care facility in Baltimore. That's where the 83-year-old contracted the coronavirus back in May. Three weeks later, the virus took her life.

"I thought in my heart of hearts, it would be safe, safer for her there," Sharron said.

Wilson is among the more than 100,000 people who have lost their lives in a nursing homes this year because of COVID-19.

"I think it's just a shame so many were lost in nursing homes, where we would think they were safe," her daughter said.

For every person like Wilson, who we have lost this year though, there are countless others still fighting, desperate to survive.

On June 26, 52-year-old Carl Werden was like so many other Americans – trying to stay healthy while leading a modest life as a contractor.

But on June 27, everything changed when Werden, a man with no underlying conditions, contracted the virus when he went to visit his daughter in Massachusetts.

In only a matter of days, Werden’s condition deteriorated and he was sent to the hospital, a place he would remain for the next six months.

“I think a lot of people think if they get sick with COVID, they’ll just be in the hospital for a few days and then they can go home, but that’s not how it works,” he said from his hospital bed over a Zoom call.

For four months, Werden slipped in and out of consciousness as he battled the virus, but in October, his lungs had finally given up. Doctors said if he did not get a double lung transplant, it would only be a matter of days until he died.

“Because of the COVID, there was a lot of fibrosis in my lungs and it just kept getting worse,” said Werden. “They cut me open, then they cut my rib cage in half.”

Much like COVID-19, Werden does not know where those donated lungs came from. But, no longer paralyzed by fear, he is thankful to still be here.

“I want people to realize there are people who are perfectly healthy like I was that go from being perfectly healthy to having a double lung transplant,” he said.