Having grown up in two small Midwestern towns, Lynda Bogdala had a good feeling about Kenosha when she and her husband, David, first moved here 20 years ago.
No, Kenosha isn’t quite as small as Liberal, Kansas, and Salem, Illinois, the places Lynda lived with her family before attending college at Southern Illinois University in Carbondale, where she and David met.
But still, there was something about Kenosha that gave Lynda that “hometown feeling.”
“The people here are so kind,” she says, smacking a table with her open palm to emphasize each word. “So kind.
“… When we came here, we felt like we were home. It was an instantaneous feeling.”
And Lynda has also found her home within that home.
For nearly six years, since 2018, Bogdala has been the Executive Director of Brookside Care Center, the venerable nursing home located at 3506 Washington Road that first opened as Willowbrook more than 100 years ago.
Bogdala speaks just as passionately about Brookside as she does about Kenosha.
“I would say Brookside’s magical,” Bogdala says.
That’s a strong adjective, but considering that Bogdala had to guide the facility through the toughest period in its long history, it’s easy to see why she feels so strongly about Brookside.
Running a nursing home has plenty of challenges in any regard, but nothing could ever prepare Bogdala and her staff for what happened in March of 2020. The COVID-19 pandemic plunged the entire world into uncertainty, of course, but nursing home facilities like Brookside were especially blindsided.
Bogdala still recalls the moment her world – and the world of all her Brookside staff and residents – changed forever.
“It was March 13, Friday the 13th, 2020, the day that will forever be in my brain,” Bogdala said during an interview in her Brookside office last week.
Fortunately, though Bogdala notes that COVID is now a challenge that Brookside will have to navigate forever, things are on the up and up since the pandemic hit.
Yes, Bogdala has steered Brookside through the storm and out the other side.
For undertaking this enormously challenging task, and for all her other community-service initiatives, Lynda Bogdala has been named this week’s Kenosha.com Kenoshan of the Week.
Getting to Brookside
Bogdala has been in the healthcare field since 1999, starting in Illinois and then working at various facilities in the Milwaukee area.
All the while, she kept driving past Brookside and taking notice.
“Brookside has always been that place that I would drive past, and I’m like, ‘Oh my gosh, that is like my future home,’” Bogdala said. “But it’s so hard to get in here, because people don’t leave once you come to Brookside.”
The original facility at the Brookside location opened way back in 1916 as a tuberculosis sanatorium called Willowbrook. Two new buildings were erected over the years, including in 1957, when the original building later named Brookside opened with a whopping total of 246 beds and 150 staff members.
As tuberculosis began to fade as a disease that debilitated society, Willowbrook closed as a sanitorium in 1969 and converted to a facility to care for the developmentally disabled. Finally, in 1995, Willowbrook became Brookside Care Center and opened for business as a nursing home with 154 single-occupancy rooms on a single floor.
Most recently, Brookside’s latest renovation added 48 beds, a new two-story building of short-term rehabilitation residences and a 24-bed community-based residential facility.
It was just after everyone moved back into the facility following this latest renovation that Bogdala was named Brookside’s Executive Director.
“I didn’t have any part of the renovation headaches,” she says with a laugh.
Bogdala would have to deal with a much, much greater challenge.
Navigating the storm
Bogdala jokes that when COVID hit, she and her staff took bets as to how long the illness would stick around. Her guess was the longest by six months.
And it was still way off.
“Little did we know that, here we are, forever,” Bogdala said.
At first, like everyone else, it was just the uncertainty of what would happen next that challenged Bogdala and her staff the most. So she really had to embrace her leadership role at Brookside.
“It was like, ‘We’ve got this. We’re going to be fine,’” Bogdala recalled. “And just trying to calm the nerves. Obviously, the regulations aspect of it, I think, was the hardest, because people didn’t know what to expect, so they were going with the flow. We would literally have regulations that would be changing every other day.
“And we are a federally regulated entity, so we’re regulated by CMS (Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services). So we would get those, and we would have to adhere to them.”
For Bogdala, the hardest part of the pandemic was seeing what it did to her elderly Brookside residents, and not from a strictly medical standpoint. Since Brookside’s rooms are private, Bogdala said it wasn’t hard to make sure a resident stayed isolated if he or she got COVID. Plus, the facility has nurses and plenty of relationships with area doctors and medical facilities.
Rather, it was the lack of socialization that was devastating for Brookside’s residents. Bogdala said Brookside “easily” had 50 visitors a day prior to the pandemic, mostly family members of residents. Suddenly, visitors were not allowed, and the residents could barely socialize with each other, either.
“The toll that it had on the residents themselves, the lack of socialization, the dining – not even allowing them to dine together – it was something I could never do again,” Bogdala said. “We are a very social group naturally here.
“We are people pleasers, right? We are here because we love that touch and that communication with humans. So to not allow that to occur was very difficult.”
Bogdala calls Brookside’s residents’ loved ones “our extended family.” So, when those loved ones were not allowed to visit, Bogdala said it was she and her staff that had to quite literally become the residents’ family.
This is a relationship they try to create under any circumstances, but it took on added significance during the darkest days of the pandemic.
“They (the residents’ family members) knew that they could trust us and that we would do everything we could for their loved ones,” Bogdala said. “I was communicating regularly via email with all the family members … just making sure that they knew what was going on here.”
Brookside also received a grant from the state that allowed it to purchase iPads so that residents could communicate with their families via Zoom and other video conferencing methods. Eventually, managed visitations were allowed, but it still wasn’t easy.
“As time progressed and we knew a little bit more about the virus, we were able to manage visitations,” Bogdala said. “It was very strange, whether they’d be outdoors, or if it was colder, they’d be indoors and scheduled and six feet apart and (wearing) masks. It was just nothing that I ever want to see again.
“But we really did everything we could to ensure that we were able to bring those family members back in.”
Getting back to normal
The pandemic also had a massive impact on Bogdala and her staff, because strident regulations created constant staffing shortages. Any staff members that were symptomatic had to stay home. If any of their own family members had COVID or were symptomatic, they also couldn’t risk going into Brookside.
In 2019, Bogdala says Brookside did over 800 admissions and discharges in its 154-bed facility. Suddenly, those census figures plummeted.
“It was a revolving door of short-term admissions, particularly. And that all stopped,” Bogdala said. “We were hitting into the 80s for our census.
“… There were times during the depths of that pandemic when we would be in the 80s. If I didn’t have the staff to care for them, I could not bring them in. So that was really a very difficult situation.”
Now, going on four years after the pandemic first struck, Brookside has come out the other side and is doing well. The most notable statistic, Bogdala says, is that not one Brookside resident has passed away from COVID-related complications since the vaccine was first rolled out.
“It has prevented hospitalization and death for my residents, period,” Bogdala says of the vaccine, knocking on wood for good measure.
Still, resident numbers have not quite climbed to what they were pre-pandemic. For one, regulations are still more stringent in the healthcare industry than in other corners of the world. Plus, Bogdala also notes that general staffing shortages continue to prevent Brookside from operating at full-resident capacity.
“We interview all the time, trying to get anybody to apply,” she says. “CNAs are hard to come by. It’s at the point where we’re kind of ‘growing them’ at this point. They’re younger, and (we’re) putting them through the CNA training, and training them here.
“… We would absolutely be full today if we could staff all the way. But we’re close. We’re at 130 (residents), so I’ll take that.”
Most importantly, throughout all the pandemic-related challenges, Bogdala says Brookside always received full support from Kenosha County.
“I absolutely feel that we had the support of the County Board and the County Executive,” she said. “They’re very good proponents of Brookside and supportive of us, and just understanding and communicating what we are dealing with, they understood.
“So that was very helpful having that support and knowing that, ‘This too shall pass,’ and that we will rebound from this. Because Brookside, in that regard, is resilient.”
A ‘magical’ place
Emphasizing how well Bogdala and her staff navigated through the pandemic, Newsweek magazine named Brookside the No. 1 nursing home facility in Wisconsin in its “America’s Best Nursing Homes 2022” rankings.
Obviously, nobody likes to think about having to place a beloved family member in a nursing facility. But Bogdala says it’s important to have these conversations and to be prepared for such a situation, whether it’s for short-term or long-term care.
“People do drive by, and they don’t realize, maybe, what we do until they need our services,” she said. “I’ve always called Brookside ‘the hidden gem of Kenosha County.’ Because people don’t know we’re here until they need our services. And they’re just like, ‘I can’t believe a place like this exists.’
“… When you’re dealing with the services that we provide, it is an emotional aspect in so many ways. … Know that when that time needs to occur, I hope that the family has had discussions and planned.”
Bogdala wants her residents and family members to feel like Brookside is a wonderful and lively place to call home, not just a place to languish near the end of life.
“Once here, people are going to realize that you have just joined a very rich community that is full of magic,” Bogdala said. “(There are) always activities. The staff here are lovely. I’ve got CNAs who have been here for 30 years. My director of nursing, same. She started here at the age of 18 as a CNA and worked her way up (to) director of nursing.
“People love it here, and they love our residents. When the resident is here, they obviously become a part of the family, but so do their loved ones. When they’re here, we’re going to take them all in and really embrace them and try to help them. It takes a transition time period to get families used to it, but once you’re settled, people like coming here. We want them to be here.”
Brookside is especially magical during the upcoming holiday season, when decorations and cheer adorn the facilities.
“Christmas is amazing,” Bogdala says. “The most beautiful time of the year.”
Citing her parents as her example, Bogdala says community service was ingrained in her from a young age.
In addition to her role at Brookside, Bogdala is serving her second six-year term on the Kenosha Public Museum Board of Directors and was a long-time board member for Safe Harbor Humane Society.
“That’s all I ever knew in my entire life, is that you give back to the community in which you reside,” Bogdala said. “So that is all I’ve ever known.”
In an interesting twist, Bogdala could have a mayor in her immediate family for the second time in her life. Her father was the mayor of Liberal, Kansas, when she was young, and now her husband, David, is running for mayor of Kenosha in the spring 2024 elections. David Bogdala served 15 years as Kenosha’s District 17 Alderman.
All the while, the Bogdalas have resided in the same Kenosha home they moved into 20 years ago. They have two children, daughter Kate, a senior at the University of Iowa, and son John, a senior at Indian Trail who’s also a lacrosse standout.
Lynda says she loves everything about Kenosha, but specifically its proximity to Lake Michigan – “I’m a water person,” she says – and its location between two big cities, Milwaukee and Chicago.
But Lynda Bogdala has always preferred to come home to that smaller-town atmosphere.
“I love Chicago. I used to spend a lot of time there, and then obviously I worked in Milwaukee for some time, as well,” she says.
“But coming home? This is home.”