Mary & Peg - newlyweds on front lines of COVID-19

Posted on Mon, 06/01/2020 - 12:30pm

By Tracy Poyser as told by Mary Rodriguez & Peg Paugh

Peg and MaryDuring these uncertain times, Malibu East still seems like a haven of safety. We all have neighbors and friends in high-risk occupations, from health care to essential services. I’m lucky to live next door to Mary Rodriguez and Peg Paugh, two amazing women who work in high-risk professions while still finding the time to do grocery shopping for me and other neighbors after the stay-at-home order took effect. And, when Mary told me they had gotten married April 23 in the middle of the lockdown, I thought their story would make our June Dialogue sing! Because of social distancing, we did our interview via email.

Mary and Peg moved to Malibu East in the spring of 2014 after an online search for accessible apartments, in case Peg’s disabled mom wanted to visit. They were sold on our security with a doorman, plus sunrises over Lake Michigan. Both have loved big scenery from childhood on. Mary is a Rocky Mountain girl from Colorado, and Peg hails from Pennsylvania, not far from the Jersey shore. Mary went to school in Chicago, and Peg in Boston, L.A. and Chicago – and both landed here.

Q: When did you meet and what made you fall in love?

They met 10 years ago, providing mental health services at a nursing home just south of us on Sheridan Road, where Peg continues working. Peg loved Mary’s kindness and humor and soon wanted to be with her all the time. They complement each other because Mary shows love through acts of service, and Peg through words of affirmation. They work in compatible professions and share a range of interests: road trips, roller coasters, watching the waves crash, great art and architecture, classical concerts and hole-in-the wall restaurants.

Q. How did you find your profession and calling?

Peg: “I studied to be a traditional psychotherapist, but when I started doing psychiatric rehab with people with psychosis, I couldn’t imagine going back to an office. Working long hours for a few days each week gives me time to pursue writing fiction and avoid burnout. My undergrad degree was in English lit, and unfortunately, I could not find anyone to pay me for writing sonnets.”

Mary: “I wanted to be an actress or a nurse and landed somewhere in the middle as a social service caseworker. I always knew I wanted to help people and make them smile. I love helping others find ways to feel empowered and solve problems.”

Peg: “Mary is the best problem solver in the world. I drive myself crazy with jigsaw puzzles because I think it will be relaxing, but Mary immediately sees entire sections and just throws it together when I get up to make tea.”

Mary: “And I don’t even really like jigsaw puzzles. I prefer people puzzles. I guess that says something about me being an extrovert and Peg an introvert.”

Q. Tell us more about your work.

Mary: “For the past four years I’ve worked at Mercy Housing Lakefront’s resident services department, helping people access, maintain and utilize health care and other social benefit programs. I’m able to navigate resources for clients because of prior experience in senior housing, in nursing homes with people with dementia and schizophrenia, and advocating for better care in health-care settings. Mercy has 12 permanent supportive housing buildings, with space for 60-200 people, many of whom had been homeless. I float between buildings, aiding with health-care benefits and managing a team of community health workers, as well as program initiatives to promote tenants’ health and well-being. I love seeing people who have survived great horror make connections and realize that they have something to contribute to others because of their resilience and knowledge. It’s sad when others reduce the individual to be only about their circumstances – homeless, poor, crazy, elderly, unemployed or sick. They’re all worthy of love and kindness, just like me.”

Peg: “I’ve practiced psychiatric rehabilitation for nursing-home residents for the past 17 years. Before the coronavirus onset, I worked with around 60 people in a neighborhood nursing home, and very closely with about seven. I provide group mindfulness and cognitive remediation for people with schizophrenia and related disorders. We’ve had many COVID-19 deaths, so that number has shrunk a lot. It’s a typical long-term care facility – chronically short-staffed, undertrained and dependent on underpaid, often underqualified help. And, that was before COVID-19 exposed the horrific health-care structure in the USA for our most vulnerable people. I’m gratified to help people achieve a sense of normalcy, see their own strengths or learn that they can still laugh and make friends even now.”

Q. How has COVID-19 changed your work life? What about PPE (personal protective equipment)?

Peg: “The entire environment has become less therapeutic. I can no longer conduct group sessions during the day. Individual meetings are challenging because I can no longer sit close to people and walk them through their medications or a mindful breathing practice. My wearing a mask is especially difficult for people with schizophrenia who often can’t read and interpret facial cues. And, residents and staff have been submerged in trauma and grief as the deaths mount up. We’ve had to scramble and scrounge for PPE. I can’t spend time with clients in the isolation unit because I don’t have the extensive PPE required there – that’s needed for the nurses and CNAs (certified nursing assistants).”

Mary: “I can work from home about half of my time doing online training, and planning creative ways to lead engagement efforts during lockdown and social distancing. I’m going in to work the other half of my week for clients whose pre-existing needs are only amplified now. At home, I don’t have to deal with the physical end to the day necessary when you leave an office/building. Peg and I have set up protective measures for both of us when we return home from a shift, including immediate washing and changing out of work clothes – both for safety and as a coping strategy. Plus, we have a sanitizing station in our front hallway to clean all items we bring inside.”

Q. So, how can residents help with safety here?

Mary: “We don’t like riding our passenger elevators after work. I often must ask others not to board with me to observe social distancing in a 5-by-4 foot space. If they refuse, I get off and walk up the rest of the 20+ floors, or wait for the next empty elevator. Please understand that we’re all possible carriers (of the virus). At Mercy Housing, we allow only one household on an elevator at a time, even though most of our buildings only have one elevator for 80+ households.”

Peg: “The trek home from work after a long, difficult day is incredibly stressful. I can’t change clothes at work without being recontaminated. Then I come home, and people don’t understand that it’s simply not safe to board the elevator with me. I try to stay patient, but it’s very discouraging.”

Q. How do you relax and rest and still find time to help neighbors?

Peg: “We’ve been doing trauma-informed care at work and can apply those principles to ourselves. Lately, Mary and I decompress by watching a lot of Netflix stand-up comedy. I read as much as I can, and practice mindfulness. Long walks and runs help, but it gets stressful with all the people out there getting too close. With Mary, the more she does for others, the more energy she has.”

Mary: “One good mindfulness practice that I enjoy is cooking… you have to pay attention, or you get rubbery scrambled eggs. I both encourage and practice calling or contacting family and friends frequently. As told to my mom, my grandma’s advice for feeling sorry for yourself was: “‘Well, don’t just sit there; get up and do something for someone else and you’ll feel better.’”

Q. When did you decide to get married? Was it prompted by the coronavirus?

We wanted to have a small wedding later this summer and had already bought the rings. As our workplaces became more vulnerable with the pandemic, we wanted to establish a legal relationship before something might happen to one of us. The County Clerk’s office is closed, but they have an emergency online and video call application process to issue marriage licenses in extenuating circumstances. As soon as the license was issued, we planned the wedding for (Peg’s) next day off and we decided the lakefront path on the Loyola campus would be perfect. Our pastor and friend, Laura Truax from LaSalle Street Church, met us there, and we all kept our masks on and kept our distance. On our walk over, we listened to a choral recording of ‘All Things Bright and Beautiful’ as our processional. When we walked back, the same choir singing ‘Immortal, Invisible’ became our recessional. We tell people we went to Jewel for our honeymoon. Although it wasn’t the wedding we anticipated, it was so special and kind of perfect, with just us, our pastor, several ducks and bunny rabbits, and one big dog trying to come greet us. Great friends helped us celebrate by dropping off champagne and a small wedding cake. Other friends sent cards, and we have loads of sweet treats at home. Instead of gifts, we’ve asked people to donate to the Chicago Food Depository. We have so much, and others are in so much need.”

Q. Is being on the front lines of COVID-19 easier now?

There is security in being able to really commit to be with each other for better or worse, richer or poorer, in sickness and in health, until death may separate us. If one of us gets sick and in need of hospitalization, it is a relief to be married and have rights to protected health information.”

Q. Any plans for a honeymoon?

We’re great travel companions and have a trip to Rome booked for late fall. We’re still hoping to get there, but if not then, we’ll make it as soon as possible. And, we have contingency plans for potential road trips: Route 66, the Grand Canyon, Acadia National Park… whatever turns out to be the best option at the time. Wherever we go, we’re sure to take photos at sunrise.”

Next time you see them, please congratulate our newlyweds and say thanks for their service in the war against COVID-19. Also, remember to practice social distancing, especially in the elevators. Let’s keep helping each other with kindness and extra generosity.

The Dialogue would like to hear about human interest stories that any of our residents have experienced during the governor’s stay-at-home mandate. If you have an unusual or uplifting story or brief anecdote you think might be of interest to others, please email the details to the Dialogue editor at