Karen Johnson, 77, spent about three years in the Highland Springs Care Center in Beaumont.
“She was at an unlocked memory care facility in Hemet, but she got to the point with her Alzheimer’s and dementia … where she needed to be in a locked facility,” said her daughter, Dena Garcia.
Eye of the Storm
Southern California Nursing Homes during the Coronavirus Pandemic
Latest installments in a continuing series
Part One: What do Southern California nursing homes hard hit by COVID-related deaths have in common? We spoke with experts, nursing home administrators and advocates to find out.
Part Two: A tale of two Pasadena nursing homes. One, Gem Transitional Care Center, hard hit by COVID deaths and another, Camellia Gardens, about four miles away, that wasn’t.
Today, Part Three: Highland Springs Care Center in Beaumont has one of the highest percentage of COVID-19 deaths per average daily number of residents of any skilled nursing home in Orange, Riverside or San Bernardino counties.
Garcia, who lives in Moreno Valley, would visit her mother regularly.
“I had a really good relationship with people who worked there. I knew them, they knew me, I could show up at any time,” she said.
And her mother seemed to like Highland Springs:
“She was a very outdoorsy person, so I think she liked getting outdoors and still feel like she was getting outside,” Garcia said, although she noted that Johnson still wasn’t allowed to leave the grounds.
In March, as the coronavirus pandemic swept into Riverside County, Highland Springs stopped all visitation. Management told residents’ families they had a rigorous routine for keeping staff, residents and the facility clean and virus-free. All employees were screened for temperatures when they arrived each day, for example. According to her family, Johnson even appears in a March 23 video about hand washing on the Highland Springs Facebook page.
“She had three really good years there and one really bad week,” said Johnson’s grandson, Kyle Garcia, who lives near Fort Worth.
On April 11, Dena Garcia was told that her mother was running a fever. Three days later, Johnson was sent to the emergency room at Banning’s San Gorgonio Memorial Hospital, where she was nonresponsive. Previously, she was capable of holding conversations and, her dementia and Alzheimer’s aside, was in generally good shape, according to her family.
Highland Springs spokeswoman Liz Tyler blames asymptomatic spread for the virus getting into Highland Springs.
“It’s not like the memory care facility created this virus or served it with breakfast,” she said. “It came in from the outside.”
Despite housing those most vulnerable to COVID-19, nursing homes don’t have the same tools as hospitals do to fight it, she said.
“Nursing homes, they don’t have negative space rooms like you have in hospitals. They have shared ventilation,” Tyler said. “It is an extraordinary effort to contain it.”
Highland Springs stopped admitting new residents on April 13, after the facility was first informed a resident had tested positive for COVID-19.
On April 17, Highland Springs was told Johnson had tested positive for COVID-19. Staff ended up testing all of their patients that same day, Tyler said. Sixty-one out of 86 residents tested positive, most of whom were asymptomatic.
“Their suspicion is it came with an asymptomatic staff member and it may have been a staff member who had a job in more than one facility,” Tyler said.
The facility gave employees an ultimatum, requiring them to only work at one facility, and residents who had tested positive were put in isolation.
Johnson died April 19 — the only person to die of COVID-19 in Riverside County that day, according to county health officials. She was the 75th person to die in the county of the disease.
A nurse at the hospital held up the phone so Dena Garcia could say goodbye to her mother.
“I just told her that I loved her and that we didn’t want her to suffer,” she said. “If it’s your time, it’s your time and you can go. Even without the coronavirus, Alzheimer’s is just a terrible, terrible disease.”
It has been a tough year for Dena Garcia: The last time she saw her mother alive was the day before Garcia’s father was buried. Two of Johnson’s six other siblings also have been diagnosed with COVID-19.
According to Tyler, Highland Springs hasn’t had any new residents test positive for COVID-19 since the beginning of June.
“They got hit with an invisible bomb, they jumped on it, they did the isolation necessary,” she said. “Even with their dementia population, they kept it from spreading.”
The Garcias feel Highland Springs wasn’t as forthcoming as it should have been about the spread of the coronavirus in the facility, something Tyler denies. But the family is sympathetic to the challenge that Highland Springs faces trying to keep dementia and Alzheimer’s patients from contracting COVID-19.
“You can’t teach them to not eat off each others’ plates. You can’t teach them to keep their hands to themselves. You can’t teach them to not pick up a half-smoked cigarette and smoke it for themselves,” Dena Garcia said. “It’s just going to happen.”
According to Tyler, the big challenge isn’t keeping the virus controlled inside nursing homes; it’s keeping it from coming in from the world outside, where, six months on, the public still can’t agree on how to prevent the virus’ spread.
“This bug is easy to kill. You just have to know it’s there. Once you know it’s there, you separate, do all the cleaning and all the things like that and you get rid of it, like this facility did,” Tyler said. “But any facility in this country, no matter how good their protocols are, they’re just one day from an asymptomatic person coming in.”
Administrator Hrag Bekerian felt confident, he said, that they were taking the right precautions at Gem Transitional Care Center before the coronavirus struck.
The four-star-rated nursing home on South Fair Oaks Avenue in Pasadena had closed its doors to visitors a week before the state’s guidance. Managers held frequent training sessions, screened all entrants and ramped up hand-washing checks.
“We believe we were well-prepared,” said Bekerian, 31.
Eye of the Storm
Southern California Nursing Homes during the Coronavirus Pandemic
Latest installments in a continuing series
Sunday, Part One: What do Southern California nursing homes hard hit by COVID-related deaths have in common? We spoke with experts, nursing home administrators and advocates to find out.
Tuesday, Part Two: A tale of two Pasadena nursing homes. One, Gem Transitional Care Center, hard hit by COVID deaths and another, Camellia Gardens, about four miles away, that wasn’t.
Wednesday, Part Three: Highland Springs Care Center in Beaumont has one of the highest percentage of COVID-19 deaths per average daily number of residents of any skilled nursing home in Orange, Riverside or San Bernardino counties.
Yet since mid-April, nearly 55 residents at Gem Transitional tested positive for COVID, more than a dozen of whom died. With typically around 65 daily residents, the nursing home has one of the highest COVID-related resident death rates in Los Angeles County for its population, according to a review by the Southern California News Group.
About four miles up the road is Camellia Gardens Care Center. As a one-star facility, it has the lowest possible overall rating on Medicare’s Nursing Home Compare. The slightly larger home had three residents contract COVID and only one death, said Nelida Arlante, the home’s administrator.
Arlante believes their vigilance helped curb the virus there. As a former physician in the Philippines, Arlante said, she may have had an edge.
2,900 deaths in region
More than 2,900 nursing home residents have died of COVID-19-related causes in Los Angeles, Orange, Riverside and San Bernardino counties, comprising about one-third of this region’s total coronavirus deaths, according to data from the California Department of Public Health.
Nursing homes across the region have touted early studies showing that location and size largely determine how they’ve fared with the virus. But it’s becoming increasingly clear that several other factors can help seal a home’s fate.
Mass testing with quick results and adequate personal protective equipment are clearly important, experts say. Nursing staff levels, infection-control practices, resident demographics, leadership and even a home’s for-profit status also can contribute to the death toll.
“It’s all those factors,” said Charlene Harrington, professor emerita at UC San Francisco and a registered nurse.
Behind the high death toll
Bekerian believes the high death toll at his for-profit facility is due at least partly to the type of residents it serves.
“We take high acuity patients,” said Bekerian, whose Gem Transitional facility often accepts patients from neighboring Huntington Hospital. “We had residents in the building that had higher and severe chronic conditions.”
People of color, who are disproportionately affected by the virus, also made up nearly 60% of their residents, according to data Bekerian provided.
California nursing homes with overall quality ratings of four and five stars were less likely to have COVID-19 cases and deaths when adjusting for a home’s size and patients’ race, according to a study in the Journal of the American Medical Directors Association. Nursing facilities with smaller white populations and for-profit ones were more likely to have higher cases and deaths.
Learning hard lessons
Like with many homes, there were also hard lessons they learned in real time.
First, Bekerian said, guidance from local, state and federal agencies kept changing.
He also realized it would have been best to quarantine staff working at multiple facilities at home for 14 days right away. Instead, Gem Transitional had at first waited for COVID-19 cases to surface at an employee’s second facility before doing so.
The nursing home, which has a four-star rating for staffing, eventually told employees they had to pick one facility after the Pasadena Public Health Department directed nursing homes to avoid using employees with multiple jobs “by any means possible” on April 12.
“I think it would have shown us good results if we had done it much, much earlier,” Bekerian said, noting the facility was simply following the guidance given by local health officials.
The vast majority of their employees stayed, he said, and all received hazard pay. He declined to say how much.
Sometimes, employees work at nursing homes with known COVID outbreaks and then are allowed by employers to work at a second facility, said Molly Davies, who oversees L.A. County’s ombudsman program that investigates concerns of residents in long-term care.
Along with a lack of adequate staffing and training, Davies believes this has been a main reason why some nursing homes have been harder hit.
“Part of that is because facilities don’t want to pay overtime so they’d rather have you work even at another building because it starts the clock again,” Davies said.
Watch employees ‘like a hawk’
Arlante has pondered how the for-profit Camellia Gardens, which has below-average ratings for staffing and health inspections, had managed to escape a harsher death toll.
“Maybe (it’s because) we are strict with our employees and we watch them like a hawk,” Arlante said. “Hand hygiene seems so simple but if you are lax, you will forget the steps and do the shortcut.”
Calming employees’ fears with regular shift training was important, she said. Being available to answer questions at any time was as well.
Arlante and Camellia Gardens’ director of nursing slept on couches in the conference room for a week after their first COVID case, she said. They later often stayed until 10 or 11 p.m. at night to supervise the employees.
“I treat the facility as family and these employees like children,” she said. “If they are afraid, they can do something drastic unless the mother hen is there.”
Camellia Gardens also provided its employees with meals three times a day to reduce their trips and their exposure outside, Arlante said.
OT and double-time allowed
The home began requiring nursing staff to pick one facility in May, she said, and lost 15 nurses in the process. But Camellia Gardens gave “bonuses” to all employees and allowed for overtime as well as double-time, which enabled them “to get by.”
Bekerian believes the local health order directing facilities to avoid using employees who work at other facilities helped turn things around at his home. Gem Transitional also learned to adapt to a new, stringent reality.
They had separate entrances for those caring for COVID patients, separate areas to put on their PPE and separate break rooms. The nursing home became vigilant about watching its staff put on and take off their masks, gloves and gowns.
It was “being very strict with every policy and procedure we have put in place,” Bekerian said.
New residents accepted
In mid-August, the city gave the nursing home clearance to accept new residents again. New residents are put in an observation unit for 14 days before they can go into the “green zone” with patients who don’t have the virus or have fully recovered from it.
As of Sept. 10, Gem Transitional had 44 patients in a home with 75 beds.
With all the different zones in the building, it has “beds ready in case a breakdown happens,” Bekerian said. But ultimately, he would “love to get back to full capacity.”
“It’s a little challenging but that’s our goal down the road,” he said. “We’re taking it day by day.”
Contributor Elissa Lee contributed to this report. This article was produced as part of a project for the USC Center for Health Journalism’s California Fellowship.
Orange County’s schools may be able to open in-person on Sept. 22 – not Sept. 8 – the Orange County Health Care Agency announced late Monday night via Twitter.
Under a new four-color, tiered monitoring system, Orange County is in the most restrictive of the tiers, but it’s on track to bump up to the next tier on Sept. 8.
The county would then remain for 14 days in that tier, county health officials confirmed with the the California Department of Public Health, according to the late-night Tweet.
That means that the earliest schools could welcome students to campuses is on Sept. 22.
When Gov. Gavin Newsom announced the new color-coded tier system on Friday, there was initially much confusion among Orange County educators as to what it meant for school reopenings. Then, the county’s health officer, Clayton Chau, tweeted that the switch to a new monitoring system did not reset the 14-day countdown and schools could still open as soon as Sept. 8, if lower case trends continue.
I confirmed with the State that has not changed for OC except for the update in the new blueprint usually occurs on Monday and the State posts on Tuesday, so the school reopening would be Tuesday, September 8, right after Labor Day weekend.
On Saturday, county health officials cast doubt on that opening date. In a Tweet, officials said they requested clarification from schools on the 14-day wait cycle. “State indicated we would get credit for those days. More to come.”
Update re: Gov.’s new system. We’ve requested additional clarification from State re: schools as there are several counties, including #OC, who are in limbo as we were part way thru prior 14 day cycle to re-open. State indicated we would get credit for those days. More to come.
The answer apparently came late Monday night. The earliest Orange County schools can open to in-person learning will be Sept. 22.
County Health Officer received confirmation from @CAPublicHealth that #OC is on track to enter into Red Tier on Sept. 8. Providing we meet Red Tier metrics at that time, there will be a 14-day wait for all K-12 schools to be eligible for reopening, which could happen on Sept. 22.
The state recommendations prohibit games but allow for physical conditioning and skill training conducted outdoors with 6 feet of physical distancing between participants.
The guidelines are similar to what many schools were following in mid-June and early July before the sessions were postponed.
Cunningham said the Irvine district received clearance Thursday from Orange County health officials to hold the modified workouts.
“Scheduling facilities is going to be the challenge,” he said. “(We) need to give athletic directors the opportunity to meet with coaches and work together to facilitate the start of camps.”
The Irvine district consists of five high schools: Irvine, Northwood, Portola, University and Woodbridge.
Camps held after the start of school will operate under the CIF Southern Section’s summertime rules, or under the authority of school principals, until the official start of the fall season in mid-December. The CIF-SS extended the summertime rules in its July 20 announcement about the new sports calendar for the 202-21 school year.
A pro-charter school group brought some 75 parents, teachers and a couple of Orange County Board of Education members together Tuesday evening to rally for the reopening of schools that were closed because of coronavirus concerns.
Parents, they said, should be making the choice of whether their children learn on campus or online.
“Open up the schools,” the crowd briefly chanted.
Jeff Barke, right, leads a rally outside the Santa Ana Educators Association office in Santa Ana on Tuesday, August 4, 2020. The rally calling for the reopening of schools was organized by the California Policy Center’s “Parent Union.” (Photo by Leonard Ortiz, Orange County Register/SCNG)
Cecilia Iglesias, left, and Orange County Board of Education member Mari Barke, right, join others outside the Santa Ana Educators Association office during a ‘reopen the schools’ rally in Santa Ana on Tuesday, August 4, 2020. The rally was organized by the California Policy Center’s Parent Union, a pro-charter school group. Iglesias, a former Santa Ana councilwoman and school board member, works for the center and organized the meeting with Barke’s help. (Photo by Leonard Ortiz, Orange County Register/SCNG)
The gallery will resume inseconds
Rhonda Furin, center, joins others during a reopen the schools rally outside the Santa Ana Educators Association in Santa Ana on Tuesday, August 4, 2020. The rally was organized by a group called “Parent Union.” It’s a pro-charter school group under the libertarian California Policy Center. (Photo by Leonard Ortiz, Orange County Register/SCNG)
A man holds up a sign during a ‘reopen the schools’ rally outside the Santa Ana Educators Association office in Santa Ana on Tuesday, August 4, 2020. The rally was organized by a“Parent Union.” (Photo by Leonard Ortiz, Orange County Register/SCNG)
About 75 protesters gathered outside the Santa Ana Educators Association office for a ‘reopen the schools’ rally in Santa Ana on Tuesday, August 4, 2020. (Photo by Leonard Ortiz, Orange County Register/SCNG)
Cecilia Iglesias protests outside the Santa Ana Educators Association office during a reopen the schools rally in Santa Ana on Tuesday, August 4, 2020. Iglesias, a former Santa Ana councilwoman and former School Board member, organized the rally as the head of the “Parent Union,” a pro-charter school group under the libertarian California Policy Center. (Photo by Leonard Ortiz, Orange County Register/SCNG)
Jeff Barke, a physician who advocates for the reopening of schools without social distancing or face masks, leads a ‘reopen the schools’ rally outside the Santa Ana Educators Association office in Santa Ana on Tuesday, August 4, 2020. The rally was organized by the California Police Center’s Parent Union group, a pro-charter group that said parents should have the choice of whether their children can return to campus for in-person learning or continue with online education. (Photo by Leonard Ortiz, Orange County Register/SCNG)
Protestors gather outside the Santa Ana Educators Association for a reopen the schools rally in Santa Ana on Tuesday, August 4, 2020. The rally was organized by the California Policy Center’s “Parent Union.” (Photo by Leonard Ortiz, Orange County Register/SCNG)
Jeff Barke, right, leads a rally outside the Santa Ana Educators Association office in Santa Ana on Tuesday, August 4, 2020. The rally calling for the reopening of schools was organized by the California Policy Center’s “Parent Union.” (Photo by Leonard Ortiz, Orange County Register/SCNG)
Flanked by American flags and punctuated with religious references and prayer, the rally was organized by the Orange County-based California Policy Center’s “Parent Union,” which pointedly chose to host its event in front of the offices of the Santa Ana teachers’ union.
“That’s why we’re here,” said Jeff Barke, an Orange County physician who regularly advocates for reopening schools without face masks or social distancing but mentioned neither safety precaution during the rally. Instead, he and others focused attention on teacher unions, which have advocated for resuming school online for now.
“We’re here to let them know we’re sick and tired of the schools being closed. It’s not based on science. It’s not based on statistics. It’s not based on facts. It’s based on union power. “
Barbara Pearson, president of the Santa Ana teachers’ union – the Santa Ana Educators’ Association – called the protest “another desperate grab for attention in their struggle to stay relevant.
“It has nothing to do with the reopening of schools or the students of Santa Ana. Governor Newsom made the decision to close schools, not the unions. Our priority is the safety of staff and students,” Pearson wrote in an e-mail Tuesday night.
During the rally Tuesday, a few teachers spoke about the detrimental effects of online learning on all students, but especially those who need special services. Students have regressed academically since schools shut down mid-March due to the coronavirus pandemic, they noted. And many who are in vulnerable situations, some speakers said, have been made even more vulnerable, exposing them to abuse and even suicide, because they don’t have their safe haven – school – to turn to.
Mari Barke, an elected member of the Orange County Board of Education and Jeff Barke’s wife, told the crowd, to “keep fighting” to reopen schools.
“Parents are in the best position to make decisions for their children,” Mari Barke said.
The rally was organized by Cecilia Iglesias, a former Santa Ana councilwoman and former School Board member who works for the California Policy Center, a libertarian think tank that focuses on issues like pension reform and charter schools. The Center runs four chapters of the Parent Union in Southern California. Iglesias said she hopes to hold similar rallies in other counties.
“Our call is a call to action, to let parents choose,” Iglesias said prior to the rally. “We’re suggesting: open up the schools, following safety guidelines, and give parents the choice.”
Frank Kim, Executive Officer for Orange County, said during a press conference about the coronavirus pandemic that youth sports were suspended after the California Department of Public Health modified guidelines.
He also said that the county re-opened athletics June 15 after other counties were given the clearance from the state.
“When the state provides that guidance and authority to one particular county (to allow modified, socially-distanced youth sports),” Kim said, “many of us began opening that program that was consistent with the guidance some counties had received directly from the state.
“And the state recently had modified their guidance on that so we did the exact appropriate thing, which was we re-issued the press release and we had conversations with the Department of Education. … I see this being a completely open and transparent process.”
The O.C. Department of Education ended up delivering the news first Monday.
Through its legal counsel, the department advised schools to postpone summer workouts based on a clarification it received from the California Department of Public Health.
Despite high school athletic programs focusing on social distancing, wearing masks and taking temperature checks, they were advised that their modified workouts weren’t approved by the state.
While the O.C. Department of Education doesn’t govern high school athletics, districts throughout the county promptly followed the advice and started shutting down their summer programs on Monday night.
By the time the County of Orange issued its press release Wednesday night that youth sports were postponed, some private schools had already stopped their workouts as well and most of the county already knew the update.
“(The California Department of Public Health) again indicated that guidance specific to youth sports would be released in the future,” Jeffrey J. Riel, general counsel for the O.C. Department of Education, wrote to school superintendents.
“Once statewide guidance is released, we will collectively work with the local public health officer to consider local community conditions when implementing the statewide guidance.”
Trying to find out the status of a baseball player coming back from an ankle injury definitely will be easier than learning whether someone tested positive for the coronavirus.
Major League Baseball said Tuesday that a team will not specifically announce a COVID-19 injured list placement for a player who is removed from the club after testing positive, just an IL trip.
MLB’s operations manual says a positive test, exhibiting symptoms that require isolation for additional assessment or exposure to someone who has had the virus are cause for placement on the new COVID-19 IL.
“It would be a speculating circumstance,” Yankees general manager Brian Cashman told media during a conference call.
Baseball’s collective bargaining agreement states that for any medical condition not related to employment “a club may disclose only the fact that a medical condition is preventing the player from rendering services to the club and the anticipated length of the player’s absence from the club.”
Cashman noted the situation continues to evolve as MLB and the players’ union continue discussions. Testing of players and staff will begin Wednesday as they report to their teams to resume workouts. They will be tested once every two days.
Last week, Charlie Blackmon of the Colorado Rockies became the first MLB player known to have tested positive. According to reports, the All-Star outfielder was one of three Colorado players to have a positive test.
Numerous other teams have said they have players who have tested positive for the virus without identifying any of them. The Philadelphia Phillies announced seven, while the Detroit Tigers said one player who was living in Florida but not working out at the team’s spring training facilities in Lakeland also tested positive.
Seattle Mariners general manager Jerry Dipoto said a few players have tested positive but declined to specify how many. Several Toronto Blue Jays players and staff members also have tested positive.
Mets general manager Brodie Van Wagenen said remaining educated about best practices is going to be crucial for everyone.
“Leadership really is going to be the difference-maker for the teams that are able to best handle this and best cope with the challenges that we face,” he said. “And that really is the accountability that needs to be shared by all of us — not just baseball, but our whole society.”
Baltimore general manager Mike Elias said the Orioles have had no reported cases and that no one on the team has decided against playing in the shortened season.
He’s hoping for a smooth start to the camp that’s scheduled to begin Friday at Camden Yards.
“We recognize that this will be fluid and everyone is having to make personal decisions and circumstances might not be fully understood until the season starts, but so far we are expecting full participation,” Elias said. “You see in the news around the league that’s not the case everywhere and I wouldn’t be shocked if that ends up happening, but that’s going to be part of this.”
“We’re not pressuring anyone or shaming anyone that feels they shouldn’t be here. We’re making that known, and I think it’s well-received,” Elias added. “Our players have been itching to play for a while. I think the whole delay was frustrating for them, for us, and everyone just wants to go play.”
Marlins CEO Derek Jeter is hoping the return of baseball can provide some solace, much like the Yankees did when they returned after 9-11.
“We were thinking as players, ‘Do we even play? What does it mean? We’re playing a game.’ Talking to family members who had lost family members and them thanking us — ‘What are you thanking us for?’ They said, ‘We’re thanking you because you’re giving us something to cheer for. There haven’t been too many happy days around here,’” Jeter said. “Baseball played a big role, at least in New York, in the healing process. It’s not saying you’re ever going to forget what happened. But at least for three hours a day we have the opportunity to give them something to cheer for. We hope that’s the case here when we get going in a couple of weeks.”
“Why don’t you grow them?” her friend asked. “You seem to have this fascination.”
She explained that she couldn’t possibly grow roses. Roses require patience, which she has never had.
That’s how it started.
Marsha Buford had no idea she was about to experience the most amazing coincidence in the middle of a pandemic.
It was April 10, about a month into the coronavirus lockdown. Marsha and her friend Darnell Elzy walked past Orange Lutheran High School through an old Orange neighborhood. Darnell caught Marsha admiring roses again.
Despite her flowery family tree, Marsha was the one, the only one, born without a green thumb. Her sister became a florist. Her two brothers became landscapers.
Her father, well, he could make anything that originated in the dirt into art.
Passers-by her home on North Sacramento Street couldn’t have known of Marsha’s lineage, which stretched to post-revolution Russian farms of blue cotton and honey bees, into hothouses at the ministries of agriculture in Moscow, through the horrific prison camps of World War II and past Ellis Island, before landing in the middle of a citrus grove in Orange County.
Portland Trail Blazers guard Tim Frazier, right, passes the ball as Lakers forwards Ryan Kelly (4) and Nick Young (0) defend on Saturday in Portland, Ore.
The gallery will resume inseconds
Phillip Phillips performs at Pacific Amphitheatre on Friday.
In this Thursday, March 17, 2016 photo, provided by the Chilean Navy, of the one of two rafts of the Kon-Tiki 2 expedition is rescued by a Chilean Navy ship, about 994 miles west of Puerto Montt in southern Chile. The Chilean Navy rescued 14 crewmembers aboard two balsa rafts that were swept up in strong currents hundreds of miles off the coast.
The Laguna Beach Breakers baseball team is recognized for winning the CIF-Southern Section Division 4 championship during the seventh inning stretch June 14 at Angel Stadium.
Darnell wouldn’t take no for an answer. She would grow roses, too, and it would be a project they could do together while the world was shut down.
Even better, Darnell knew a woman who could help them. Her name is Lisa Gilmore, and her husband, Rex, owns the Monroe Pacific Nursery in Huntington Beach.
Rex Gilmore grew up in his father Paul’s nursery, Plant Boys on Tustin Avenue in Orange. Rex has a degree in horticulture from Cal Poly Pomona, and he has owned Monroe Pacific since 1990. He was the perfect ringer to give them tips on tending to their new rose gardens, Darnell said.
On April 25, Darnell and Marsha traveled the 17.5 miles from Orange to Huntington Beach and parked in front of the nursery. Rex met them with a big smile.
He’s a gregarious guy who loves to talk. As they walked toward the roses, Rex could see Marsha’s eyes being attracted to lots of colorful flowers.
He had a story for all of them. There were plants called “Yesterday Today and Tomorrow” (Brunfelsia, native to Brazil) which change colors depending on the time of day.
“He was describing different types of flowers like they were his children,” Marsha remembers.
She hadn’t heard anyone talk about flowers like that since her dad died in 1975 when she was 22 years old.
Marsha remembers saying, “My father was a botanist in Russia.”
Rex Gilmore stopped.
“He looks at me,” Marsha said.
Rex told her, “I knew a Russian botanist … His name was Wassiliew.”
“My mouth dropped open,” Marsha said.
Rex could see the tears rolling down her face.
It wasn’t long before Rex was crying, too.
“I didn’t get emotional until she got emotional,” Rex said. “It was quite a coincidence.”
Rex not only knew Fedor Wassiliew, he had been to Marsha’s childhood home on Cleveland Street and he had been inspired by the old Russian plant man. He called Wassiliew “a mad scientist” in the most endearing way possible.
Fedor was born on Christmas Day in 1901 in a Russian city named Tambov, which means abyss.
Wavy-haired Fedor Vasilev was one of six brothers who learned to work the farm. They had lemon and orange groves and bees. His parents ran a general store.
As a young man, Fedor was sent to the Institute of Horticulture and then to the Russian state farm at Vashsk (a name that no longer exists on Russian maps), where he served as the scientific supervisor on a property with 2,000 hens and 700 beehives. In 1934, he was sent to Soviet Georgia where he learned to grow tea and blue cotton. He also figured out a way to make lemon and orange trees bloom quicker than their natural time.
Fedor Vasilev was a botany star.
He wrote five books that were published in the Soviet Union and later Germany – topics: horticulture (1934), bee rearing (1937), cultivation of vegetables (1938), bee rearing again (1949) and fruit growing (1950). Fedor was a prolific writer with dirt under his fingernails.
In 1938, he worked for the Ministry of Agriculture at the All Soviet Exhibition in Moscow. That would have been a permanent position had it not been for World War II.
The botanist’s life changed in 1941. First, he was drafted into the Russian Red Army on July 1. In October, he was captured by the Germans.
Fedor wasn’t Jewish. He was a member of the Russian Orthodox Church. But that didn’t improve his plight during the war.
Fedor was sent to a German prisoner of war camp near what is now Swinemunde, Poland. According to letters discovered by Marsha, Fedor wrote that he escaped the camp in 1944 and fled to Berlin. He was recaptured and forced into slave labor as an “ostarbeiter,” where he was nearly worked to death in a factory he called the “Hell Plant” making automobile motors.
“They were hung if they tried to escape,” Marsha said.
His letters do not explain how he met Valentina, who became his wife. Valentina had been captured at 15 by Germans who stormed her apartment building in Smolensk, Russia. She was taken to the Dachau concentration camp, where her hands and chest were tattooed with identification numbers and the tips of two of her fingers cut off.
Marsha doesn’t know much about the horrors inflicted on her parents or how their relationship developed.
One letter says “February 1945 meried and in March with my Russian wife fled from Berlin to Munich.”
“Fled” seems like such an understated explanation.
“They didn’t talk much about it,” Marsha said.
New U.S. home
Fedor and Valentina had two boys, Nickalous and Alexsander, in Munich.
In 1951, the couple signed up for a program in which churches around the globe were helping citizens displaced by the war. The First Presbyterian Church of Orange became their sponsor.
The Vasilevs landed at Ellis Island on June 28, 1951.
Apparently, their family name was too difficult to communicate to or be understood by U.S. immigration officials. When they left New York bound for Orange County, they had become the Wassiliew family.
They lived in an apartment above the garage of Vern Valentine, a church member in Orange. In exchange for room and board, Fedor worked in Valentine’s vast garden tending strawberries, avocados, potatoes and melons. He was particularly proud, he wrote in a letter, when he crossed a German strawberry with a California Shasta strawberry, making a more aromatic fruit with a higher sugar content.
Fedor eventually left the farm to work for Sunkist. Then he ventured out on his own and became a landscaper. In the last years of his life, the brilliant Russian botanist made his living by mowing lawns. Valentina was a maid.
Marsha was born in 1953 and her sister Valentina (named after her mother) was born in 1955. Even though they had given Marsha an American sounding name, Fedor always called his daughter “Masha.”
‘It was magical’
It was 2020 when Marsha Buford decided to make a change.
She had never liked the front of her house.
Dominated by a long hedge, an “ugly,” “smelly” lantana rectangle, creeping up toward the windows like a burglar, the front of the house was “icky,” she said.
Marsha felt helpless against the hedge. Rip it out and plant flowers? No way. She considered herself incapable. Cursed almost.
Marsha had never been able to grow anything, unless you count that ugly lantana hedge.
To make matters worse, she would walk through her Orange neighborhood – 4 miles a day, like clockwork – and notice the beauty in front of the other homes. Especially the roses. Those roses she saw, bursting fuchsia, dark reds and snowy whites, so enchanted her she found herself carrying clippers and snipping daily blooms for bouquets. Most of the time, she would ask permission.
She liked to put the roses on her desk. Or, every so often, she would take them to Fairhaven Memorial Park where she would place them on her parents’ graves.
Until May of 2020, few people who ventured down Marsha Buford’s cul de sac would have even noticed the Buford house. Like the straight rows of brickwork, the beige RV in the driveway and the bland hedge, nothing suggested that Marsha, a petite and energetic blonde, had all that beautiful botany in her blood.
There was nothing in front of the Buford house to signal she had been raised by a father who painted ceilings gold and light blue and crafted intricate moldings, sheared topiary bears, engineered dwarf fruit trees and grew roses that dangled like constellations in front of Marsha’s childhood home on North Cleveland Street near old town Orange with a sign that said his name – “Fedor Wassiliew’s Planetarium” – hanging next to the front door.
Recently, something came over Marsha Buford. Something stirred in her blood. Her inspiration? Maybe a bit of self-reflection, or mortality, that seemingly everyone has felt during the global pandemic. Maybe it was the extra time created by the lockdown. Maybe it was those daily walks through so much color, or a little nudge from a friend.
Whatever it was, she became convinced that her house needed a facelift.
“I’ll take the front,” she told her husband, Jon. She gave him the back.
Suddenly, there was the promise of new colors at the curved end of North Sacramento Street. Marsha Buford tore away the hedge and planted roses – lavender, pink, yellow, red, white and coral roses.
Along the way, Marsha tapped into something she was sure had died 45 years ago.
“It was magical,” she said through her tears.
She found a connection to her father.
“I felt his incredible spirit guiding me,” she said. “I could hear his voice … ‘Malenkiy Masha,’ he calls me in Russian.”
An American girl
The Wassiliews moved into the house on North Cleveland Street in 1957.
It was so Russian.
Marsha remembers the care her father put into the ceilings, which he painted light blue and gold and hung chandeliers “like the czars,” he told her. Fedor raised chickens, rabbits, pheasants and bees. Fedor had two hothouses full of orchids in the backyard. He grew apple, orange, peach, grapefruit and apricot trees. He made topiary bears, horses, roosters and pheasants.
Fedor was convinced he could create a dwarf peach tree that bore fruit with red and white pulp. He tinkered for years on the “Eldorado,” as he called it, named after the mythical city of gold.
Fedor kept a jug of Chianti underneath the stairs and a jug of honey by the bathtub. He took honey baths almost every night. Honey baths, he said, are good for the skin.
At the Wassiliew house, the best day of the year was the Fourth of July.
“They were so happy to be in the USA,” Marsha said.
They would host a big Independence Day party with cognac, piroshki (deep-fried dough pockets of beef and onions) and red potato salad with beets.
Despite her Russian roots, Marsha was an American girl. She like the band “Buffalo Springfield.” She and her friends would go “grovin’” among the rows of orange trees. Grovin’, she said, involved beer, cars and driving fast among the trees. Or she would go “castle hunting” in which she and her friends would run through rich neighborhoods trying to set off motion detector lights.
Like most kids, Marsha rolled her eyes at her parents.
“I was somewhat embarrassed by their accents,” she said. “I kick myself in the ass for that now.”
She remembers when she was 16 her father had started a landscaping business. He had trouble with his driver’s license, so he made Marsha drive him to lawn mowing jobs.
“I was mortified,” she said.
There was another teenager. He was not mortified.
He was more like a sponge, soaking up knowledge from the brilliant botanist.
Between the time he was 14 and 17, Rex Gilmore met Fedor Wassiliew several times inside the Plant Boys nursery. Fedor shopped there often.
“I got to talking to him,” Rex said. “He was like a mad scientist, but later on, I learned it all made sense.”
Around Christmas, Fedor would bring cognac into Plant Boys to spread good cheer.
“I would have a swig …” Rex said, “when my dad wasn’t in the office.”
In 1964, Fedor invited the Gilmore family over for dinner. Before the food was served, he took Rex for a tour of the backyard. Fedor showed Rex how to use a syringe to penetrate fruit embryos. He called the process “sunshine radiation,” Rex remembers.
“It was full of plants all over the place,” Rex said. “He had engineered the lemon trees to smell like Bacardi rum.”
What Rex didn’t remember from all those years ago was that Fedor had two daughters. Marsha said she must have been hiding under the stairs when the Gilmores came to dinner.
Rex remembers the topiary animals, including the peacock, which had a green head and a yellow tail.
That peacock changed Rex’s life.
Knowing Rex liked it so much, Fedor brought the peacock as a gift to Plant Boys, where it was put on display. That’s where it was seen by Al Stovall, the famous Anaheim hotelier. Stovall owned several properties around Disneyland (“Inn of Tomorrow,” “Galaxy,” “Space Age,” “Apollo” and “Cosmic Age”).
“He saw the peacock,” Rex Gilmore remembers. “And he asked me, can you make anything else?”
Young Rex launched a career making topiary giraffes, gorillas, horses and poodles. When the Democrats came to Anaheim, he made donkeys. When the Republicans came, he made elephants. In all, he estimates he made more than 700 bushy animals in his career.
All because of Fedor’s peacock.
Timing is everything
Fedor Wassiliew’s dream came true in 1975. He had patented his dwarf peach trees, which bore fruit that he called “red meat” or “white meat.”
On Feb. 21, he sold that patent for Eldorado peach trees to Jackson & Perkins, an influential nursery founded in 1872. The agreement would guarantee income for 18 years.
Marsha’s father was on top of the world. She remembers him from that day, majestic.
“I thought he was very handsome and brilliant,” Marsha said. “I was very proud of him.”
On Feb. 22, Marsha got a call. Her father was in the hospital. He had suffered a heart attack.
He died the day after his Eldorado deal.
“It was horrific,” Marsha said. “Every time I think about the Eldorado, it’s sad.”
The royalties from his Eldorado trees brought in about $4,000 per year for 18 years, Marsha said. Fedor’s children divided the money evenly among themselves.
Marsha will never forget her father’s Russian Orthodox funeral, in which the Wassiliews followed the tradition of each family member throwing dirt on the casket until it is covered.
“That was surreal,” she said. “It was so strange to throw dirt on him.”
But then it hit her.
“I realized that dirt was the love of his life,” Marsha said. “Everything he did came from the dirt.”
Marsha Buford had a decision to make.
She walked with Rex Gilmore looking at all the different types. She found herself talking to her father.
“Daddy,” she said, “help me find the right roses. I felt his incredible spirit guiding me.”
Marsha bought four types of roses from Rex – Melody Perfume, Love, Tiffany and Touch of Class. She tore out the hedge and planted the roses along the front of her house.
“I get up in the morning and say hello to my roses,” she said.
But roses, as she knew, can be so tough. For weeks, she couldn’t get many blooms.
Two players in the Angels organization have tested positive for COVID-19, general manager Billy Eppler said on Friday night.
Eppler would not specify whether the players were major leaguers or minor leaguers, but he said that neither had been working out at Angel Stadium or at the team’s complex in Arizona.
Both players are currently being quarantined, Eppler said. One of the players showed mild symptoms and the other no symptoms, Eppler said.
The news comes on a day that the Philadelphia Phillies, Houston Astros and Toronto Blue Jays all said that at least one player in their organization had tested positive. In each of those cases, the players had been working out at the team’s spring training facility in Florida.