When Toni Exley left the hospital for the last time, it wasn’t as a nurse – her one-time profession – but as a patient.
It was June. The coronavirus had barely begun its assault on the nation.
The retired hospice nurse had been in and out of Torrance Memorial Medical Center since May, recuperating from a compound fracture in her back.
And now, she was headed home.
But after a visit to the Lomita Care Center, for physical therapy, Exley tested positive for the virus.
She would not recover.
In a way, however, she was one of the lucky ones. When the final moments came, Exley wouldn’t be alone. She wouldn’t be trapped in a sterilized hospital room — like thousands of her fellow coronavirus patients — in a wing isolated from all others to prevent the disease from spreading.
She’d be at home. With her daughter. And granddaughters.
“She was at home, comfortable, we played Hawaiian music for her,” her daughter, Daneen Larecy, said. “It was the way she wanted to go.”
This was possible because Exley was not the only nurse in the family. Rather, she was the second of four generations of health care workers.
Her daughter and granddaughter Madisyn Larecy both work at Torrance Memorial. And last week, as they prepared to celebrate their first Mother’s Day without Exley, the pair reflected on the legacy they must continue: Four generations of women who have all dedicated their lives to helping others.
“We are so incredibly blessed that these women taught us to be caring and compassionate ladies, and make a difference in our world,” Daneen Larecy said. “I just wish I had a telephone to call my mom.
“You taught me everything,” she added, “except how to live without you.”
The family legacy, meanwhile, has crystallized over the past year. The coronavirus pandemic has left in its wake death and suffering and, in many cases, loneliness. And Daneen and Madisyn Larecy have been among those trying to help.
“I just kept thinking about my grandmother,” Madisyn Larecy said, “who comforted so many people in hospice.”
Daneen Larecy, as a child, often accompanied her grandmother, Ruth Exley, to her shifts in the purchasing department at a Los Angeles area hospital. She was 7 at the time, but would answer phone calls while her grandmother ordered medical supplies.
The elder Exley founded her family’s legacy of helping those in need — even when not working in the hospital. The mother of four fostered 103 kids during her life, Daneen Larecy said.
This, the elder Larecy joked, led her mother to wonder if she and her siblings were fostered too.
Toni Exley — Ruth Exley’s daughter and Daneen Larecy’s mother — would also find her calling in health care. Eventually.
“My mom talked about how when she was in high school, she got in trouble a lot,” Daneen said. “Her parents made her work at a nursing home as punishment and she ended up loving it, caring for the little old ladies and men.”
But the trouble of her youth, it seems, extended into Toni Exley’s adulthood. She struggled with addiction. She worked odd jobs to support her family.
Eventually, she joined Alcoholics Anonymous. Over the next 41 years, she’d mentor countless others who struggled with addiction, some of whom, her daughter said, would become lifelong friends.
When Daneen Larecy was 12, her mother became a nurse at last.
The high school passion she had for helping her elders led Toni Exley into a long career as both an operating room and a hospice nurse.
“She loved what she did in hospice,” Daneen Larecy said. “It was an amazing gift to help families in their hardest times.”
Daneen Larecy holds family photos that include her mother and grandmother that inspired herself and her daughter to carry on their legacy of healthcare. For four generations the family has been caring for people in hospitals. Currently Madisyn is a registered nurse working at Torrance Memorial Medical Center alongside her mother Daneen, a licensed clinical social worker in Torrance on Thursday, May 6, 2021. (Photo by Brittany Murray, Press-Telegram/SCNG)
L-R Madisyn Larecy and her mother Daneen Larecy with a photo of their grandmother and mother respectively, Toni who passed away from COVID-19 last year. For four generations the family has been caring for people in hospitals and this will mark their first Mother’s Day holiday without Toni. Currently Madisyn is a registered nurse working at Torrance Memorial Medical Center alongside her mother Daneen, a licensed clinical social worker in Torrance on Thursday, May 6, 2021. (Photo by Brittany Murray, Press-Telegram/SCNG)
L-R Madisyn Larecy and her mother Daneen Larecy with a photo of their grandmother and mother respectively, Toni Exley who passed away from COVID-19 last year. For four generations the family has been caring for people in hospitals and this will mark their first Mother’s Day holiday without Toni. Currently Madisyn is a registered nurse working at Torrance Memorial Medical Center alongside her mother Daneen, a licensed clinical social worker in Torrance on Thursday, May 6, 2021. (Photo by Brittany Murray, Press-Telegram/SCNG)
Soon enough, it was Daneen Larecy’s turn to choose a career.
She enrolled at Cal State Long Beach, initially unsure of what to pursue.
She sought her mother’s advice.
She became a clinical social worker — continuing the family legacy, albeit in a different field.
Still, Daneen Larecy would, at one point, work with her mother and grandmother at the same hospital.
“My mother, my grandmother and myself all worked at Providence of San Pedro at one point,” Daneen Larecy said. “All of us together.
“It was so inspiring,” she added, “to follow with them.”
Madisyn Larecy, meanwhile, knew early on what she wanted for her life:
She’d follow in the footsteps of the women who inspired her.
When she was a child, the younger Larecy recalled, her grandmother showed her how to use a stethoscope and take someone’s blood pressure.
“My grandmother didn’t want us waiting in line for flu shots,” Madisyn Larecy said. “So she would just administer it to the whole family at home.
“She was always caring for people.”
The younger Larecy volunteered at Torrance Memorial all four years she was in high school. The last two years she worked in the neonatal intensive care unit, which, she said, intensified her passion.
She left Southern California to attend Montana State University.
Madisyn Larecy graduated last year and returned home.
To live with her grandmother.
Shortly after Madisyn Larecy moved in with Toni Exley, the latter contracted the coronavirus. She fell ill.
Toni Exley, in her early 70s, was at high risk of developing severe symptoms from COVID-19. And she did.
Of the more than 61,000 Californians who have died from coronavirus-related causes, 73.5% have been at least 65 years old, according to the state’s Department of Public Health.
Many of them, as both Daneen and Madisyn Larecy can confirm, have died in hospitals. In wards cordoned off from the rest. With the only companionship coming from nurses and doctors hidden behind personal protective equipment.
But Toni Exley stayed home.
Daneen Larecy and her two daughters, including Madisyn Larecy, cared for her.
“We reworked her entire house to make sure everything was safe and sanitary,” the elder Larecy said. “We set up zip walls in all the rooms, and we were covered head to toe in PPE any time we were there.”
Toni died in June, shortly after her 73rd birthday.
“We didn’t know if we were going to have more than one loss with the three of us caring for her,” Daneen Larecy said, acknowledging how quickly the virus can spread. “And that was really scary, but we wanted to be there for her.”
Throughout her career, Daneen Larecy has made beaded bracelets in honor of patients who have died. She gives those bracelets to those patients’ family members, so they can remember them always.
So after her mother died, the elder Larecy followed her personal tradition.
She slipped a bracelet onto her mother’s wrist, and passed out others to the rest of the family.
For Daneen and Madisyn Larecy, in particular, the bracelets are a daily reminder of their matriarch’s life.
Two weeks after her grandmother died, Madisyn Larecy passed her licensing test. She was a nurse. Like her grandmother.
It was, she said, a bittersweet milestone.
But the younger Larecy didn’t have time to rest. The coronavirus was still plaguing Los Angeles County and, though no one knew it at the time, would soon surge ahead of the winter holidays.
Exhausted hospital workers needed all the help they could get.
By August, Madisyn Larecy was working in Torrance Memorial’s COVID-19 unit.
“I was being trained by someone who was just as new to a pandemic as I was,” the younger Larecy said. “And then a few months later, I was training someone else.”
The deaths she witnessed took a toll, Madisyn Larecy said. As did the long hours and the uncertainty of when the pandemic would end.
But she was undeterred. Helping people is her family’s legacy. She thought about her predecessors: Her great-grandmother. Her grandmother. Her mother.
“It gave me the strength,” Madisyn Larecy said, “to keep helping the people who were terribly ill.”
California survived the winter surge. Three different vaccines came online. New cases and deaths have waned for months. And the economy has slowly reopened. On Friday, coronavirus hospitalizations in Los Angeles County dropped to its lowest point.
The pandemic isn’t over yet.
But Madisyn Larecy and her fellow hospital workers — including her social-worker mother — can now imagine an end.
While Torrance Memorial still has coronavirus patients inside its walls, Madisyn Larecy’s cohort does not. Her team’s last coronavirus patient left the hospital about two weeks ago — discharged by Madisyn Larecy.
But even when the pandemic ends, the younger Larecy knows, there will always be patients. Those who need help. Who are lonely. Or scared. And there will always be families of patients seeking comfort.
Here, too, Madisyn Larecy has continued what may now be part of the family legacy: Like her mother, she makes bracelets for her patients’ families.
The hope, Madisyn Larecy said, is to give them the same thing she, her mother and grandmother had at the end:
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