Instead of wrapping up an active school year at Grove High, siblings Kai, left, and Ava Sarwinski have spent much of the last month working as certified nursing assistants at Grove Nursing Center in northeast Oklahoma. (Chloe Goff/Grove Sun)

GROVE — In a moment of exhaustion near the end of his double shift, Kai Sarwinski sat in his car parked outside Grove Nursing Center.

It was April 12, less than 48 hours after testing at the long-term care and rehab facility in northeast Oklahoma revealed that 37 of the center’s 68 residents and 19 staff members were carrying the deadly coronavirus.

After nearly 16 hours spent checking residents’ vitals and temperatures on top of his other duties, Sarwinski, a nursing assistant, found himself phoning his parents to set his mind straight.

When he heard his 17-year-old sister in the background, he made a plea for help:

Get your stuff together, come up here and work a shift Monday.

And that’s how Kai and Ava Sarwinski, two Grove High School siblings, wound up on the front lines of the COVID-19 pandemic. As certified nursing assistants who make about $13.50 per hour, Kai and Ava have spent much of the last few weeks helping residents with intimate tasks such as bathing, dressing and restroom needs.

As of May 13, 50 residents and 28 staff members had tested positive for the virus; 17 residents have died.

For those living and working around the facility, located on the Honey Creek arm of Grand Lake, the positive cases are more than a number. They are men and women who helped build the lake community of 6,100, which swells in size each summer because of its beauty and fishery.

They are the people who Kai and Ava help in their moment of greatest need.

“This is exactly what I was hired for,” he said. “I’ve spent too much time, working and caring for these people to walk away. They are my family. I can’t leave them in their darkest hour.”

Growing Up in Medicine

The Sarwinskis’ father, Mike, began his medical career as a nurse. When Kai was an infant, he started his master’s degree to become a nurse anesthetist. These days Mike Sarwinski helps intubate COVID-19 patients being placed on a ventilator.

Their mother, Kelly, just completed her associate’s nursing degree from Northeastern Oklahoma A&M College in Miami and will take the licensing test when COVID-19 restrictions are lifted.

Their older sister, Stacia, graduated in May with a bachelor’s degree from the advanced nursing school at the University of Oklahoma. Their maternal grandmother worked as a nurse; their grandfather as a pharmacist.

Ava jokes that growing up around their dad’s hospital job gave the siblings strong stomachs to handle “blood, guts, vomit, poop and other stuff.” 

When Kelly Sarwinski learned that certified nursing assistant training may be required for nursing school acceptance, she suggested Ava take the class at Northeast Tech, saying it would give her a head start in life. Kai joined the studies at Ava’s urging. 

“Huge life lessons are learned in taking care of those that can’t take care of themselves. The elderly seem forgotten by this generation,” Kelly said. “I love the compassion and empathy they have gained by doing this. If they decide to go into medicine or nursing, they will have firsthand experience.”

Kai began working at the nursing center after Grove’s football season. While it was natural to watch her son continue his work routine, picking up additional shifts as the pandemic hit, Kelly said she wasn’t prepared for the emotion in his voice as he described his working conditions that Sunday afternoon.

“Our faith is strong and this was as close to saintly duties as we could imagine,” she said.

Kai and Ava Sarwinski, with their mother, Kelly, left. (Kaylea M. Hutson-Miller)

Growing Up Sarwinski

There are four Sarwinski siblings. Twins Connor and Stacia are about 10 years older than Kai and Ava, who are Irish twins — their July births taking place less than a year apart. For a few days each year, they are the same age.

Each is reluctant to describe themselves, choosing instead to talk about the other. 

“She’s good at everything she does, and if she’s not good, she’s willing to get better,” Kai said, looking at his sister. Ava characterizes her brother as “the homecoming king who’s friends with everybody.”

Last year, Kai stepped off the wrestling mat and into the spotlight. After working on the tech crew for the school’s production of “The Wizard of Oz,” the athlete who loved wrestling found a new passion: acting and singing. 

“You can’t just stay in one category,” Kai said. “You need to expand.”

Before the pandemic, Kai was in contention to win a pole vaulting state championship. He’s been a state contender in wrestling. He was a starting linebacker for the first Grove team to make the state football playoffs in 10 years and has hopes to walk on at Division II Pittsburg (Kan.) State in the fall.

As a bass singer, Kai portrayed the beast in the school’s production of Disney’s “Beauty and the Beast.” This spring he was the preacher in “Footloose.” He is part of Grove’s show choir, which was headed for state competition. 

Ava is known for her softball skills. She has made an early commitment to play for William Jewell College in Liberty, Mo.  A member of Grove’s first female wrestling team, she placed fifth at 127 pounds in the all-class tournament in February. Her inspiration for joining the team? A desire to top her oldest brother Connor’s 40-1 record his senior year, she says with a wry smile.

“My brothers made me mean as hell. That’s where I get my grit,” she said.

She planned to run the 100- and 300-meter hurdles in track this spring. Then everything ground to a halt.

Ava Sarwinski is a catcher for the Grove High School softball team and plans to play at William Jewell College. (Chloe Goff / Grove Sun)

Life in a Pandemic

On March 12, Ava said the “weirdest day in her life” began as things around her, including the NCAA basketball tournament and the state high school basketball tournament, were canceled.  It was the last day Grove students would attend in-person classes.

The district transitioned to online learning after spring break. The change meant Ava stayed home, sheltering in place. Kai pulled additional shifts at the nursing center, putting him face to face with COVID-19.

On April 10, county and state health department officials tested every Grove Nursing Center resident and staff member. Kai said he kept working even as colleagues who tested positive were sent home. 

“At that point, you just keep doing your job,” Kai said. “It’s tough, but we all pulled together, and made it through. We made it happen.”

The anxiety over those COVID-19 cases was part of the reason Kai asked his sister for help. By the time she arrived at the center that Monday morning, the necessary calls were complete, allowing her to join the team. 

“I didn’t even think twice,” Ava said. “I knew if I did everything right, I would be okay. I knew I was helping out my brother, and we’ve always had each other’s back.”

Since then Ava has worked the 3 to 11 p.m. Monday through Saturday shift. Kai continues to work his double shifts on the weekend, and works 3 to 11 p.m. Tuesday through Thursday, with the occasional Friday tossed in. 

The siblings just completed schooling for the 2019-20 school year.  They are grateful for teachers and administrators who recognized their work at the nursing center and permitted them to finish homework as time allowed. For the most part, the pair are self-quarantining at home, venturing out for work and gas for their cars when needed. Kai started teaching himself to play the banjo and guitar. Ava said she “still needs sleep.”

For both, their duties at the the nursing center are a more than a 50-hour-a-week jobs.

“We are there to be extra loving,” said Ava, “to say, ‘Do you need to talk? I’ll come back.’”

Kai Sarwinski, right, played a lead role opposite Hanna Glasgow, left, in the Grove High School production of “Beauty and the Beast.” (Kaylea M. Hutson-Miller)

Real Life Continues

To date, of the five long-term care and nursing facilities in the community, Grove Nursing Center is the only facility to register a COVID-19 positive case. 

One difficult task given to nursing assistants during the pandemic is to help prepare a resident’s body following their death. In the past, this would mean presenting the person’s body for a family viewing. 

Now, nursing assistants are asked to help transition the resident’s body for pickup at the entrance by funeral home officials, a task both Sarwinskis have been asked to complete. 

“It sucks, because the family can’t come see them,” Kai said. “For me, it feels like they really don’t get to say goodbye.”

Ava said she knew the day one of the facility’s special residents died would be incredibly difficult for Kai. 

“My heart sunk, because I knew how he talked about her,” Ava said. “I met her and she was vibrant and fun.”

The experience has strengthened Kai and Ava’s conviction to pursue medical careers — Kai as a surgeon or dermatologist, Ava as a nurse. 

Said Kai Sarwinski, “I want to help them get better.”

Kaylea M. Hutson-Miller is an award-winning freelance journalist living in northeast Oklahoma. Her most recent work has appeared in The Joplin Globe and Tulsa World. Follow her work on Instagram and Twitter @OklaLoisLane or at www.myscrappylife.com.

The Coronavirus Storytelling Project is a collaboration between the Oklahoma-based Inasmuch Foundation, the Oklahoma Journalism Hall of Fame and Oklahoma Watch to help state journalists who have been furloughed or displaced as well as those in struggling community news organizations. The Inasmuch Foundation has pledged $50,000 to launch the project and provide five $500 grants to those accepted into the project each week for the next four months. Apply here. Stories and photos are available for republication with appropriate credits. To republish, contact Mike Sherman at msherman@oklahomawatch.org.


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