Written by Melissa Bean Sterzick
Decades from now, everybody old enough to remember 2020 will have a pandemic story. For one Torrance family, the story is about how they bravely responded to the medical emergency playing out around the world, in their community and in their own home.
Daneen Larecy is a clinical social worker, and her daughter Madisyn Larecy is a nurse. Both work for Torrance Memorial. In June 2020 they were already deeply involved in the fight against the virus when Daneen’s mother and Madisyn’s grandmother, Toni Exley, a retired hospice nurse, contracted COVID-19 after treatment for a broken back.
Daneen was part of the hospital’s transformation from normal, careful operations to an intense environment of protocols and procedures designed
specifically to isolate the virus. Madisyn had left college for spring break in March and didn’t return. At home she studied for her nursing license exam and put on a cap and gown for a homemade graduation ceremony in her front yard.
The family’s four-generation tradition of working in health care prepared them for the difficult days ahead. When Daneen was a small child, she would go to work with her grandmother, Ruth Exley, who processed orders and supplies for a Los Angeles area hospital. Daneen says she helped answer the phone and file paperwork, then went home and played hospital with her friends.
Madisyn grew up watching her mother and grandmother help people and never thought of doing anything different. “From the time she could talk, she wanted to be a nurse like grandma,” Daneen says. Madisyn started early, volunteering at Torrance Memorial during all four years of high school.
She wanted most of all to become a NICU nurse. “I love babies and working with the families too. It’s so great because you get to make a long-term connection,” she says.
When the family knew Toni would not recover from COVID-19, they made all the arrangements they could as quickly as possible and brought her home. Daneen’s youngest daughter, Mikaela Larecy, joined Daneen and Madisyn in caring for Toni themselves. Friends delivered PPE, and the women created a clean room and sealed off hallways in the house. Toni’s hospice nurse was a woman Toni had trained herself.
These were the early days of the pandemic, when the world was still learning how to prevent transmission and treat COVID-19. Daneen says none of them would do anything differently, but she and her husband, Michael, were afraid Madisyn’s and Mikaela’s lives were in danger.
Their expertise protected them. Toni had prepared them to take care of her and each other. She died on June 24, 2020, just after her 73rd birthday.
Weeks after her grandma passed, Madisyn passed the National Council Licensure Exam. She began working at Torrance Memorial in the medical/surgical unit two months later. The department soon became a COVID-19 unit. Instead of a slow transition, Madisyn immediately started handling her own patients.
She is working with patients in a regular unit now. Daneen, in her position as a social worker, is watching a new phase of the pandemic evolve as months of isolation and stress have caused an increase in mental health issues. She is preparing to face this challenge the way she has faced all others.
“My mom and my grandma would always say, ‘You can make a difference. The world is a better place because you’re in it,’” she says.
Madisyn says her grandma was always excited for her to become a nurse. She still wants to work in a NICU, but the pandemic taught her she could treat any patient—including the elderly and the dying. She didn’t understand how her grandma could be a hospice nurse, but now she does.
“I get to honor her with what I do now. I feel like I’ve been able to give families something I gave to my grandma. I know what to do. My mom and my grandma taught me how to care for people,” she says.
The Larecy family can see the world slowly moving out of survival mode. It will be difficult to define the moment “normal” returns, but they are sure it’s coming. “I don’t know what the ceremony is, but we’re starting to hug again,” Daneen says.