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Life Care Centers of America, the Cleveland, Tennessee-based nursing home giant, on Thursday remembered its 13 employees who've died due to the coronavirus, calling them "fallen heroes."

Ranging from a licensed practical nurse who worked at a Massachusetts center for just seven months to a 42-year laundry supervisor in Michigan, the 13 were cited for making "the ultimate sacrifice" as they served residents of the facilities.

Beecher Hunter, Life Care's president, likened the company's workers to the shepherd boy David's battle with Goliath in the Bible.

"How did David win this battle? By answering God's call. It took all the resources he had and the knowledge to use them and he prevailed," he said. "Who'll enter the arena to fight the pandemic? Most associates answered the call of duty. With prayer and resolve they've entered the fray."

Hunter, speaking at a ceremony at the company's headquarters and broadcast on the internet, said that the toll of the coronavirus was staggering.

"We hadn't seen something like this before," he said. "We lost some residents, but we saved many."

Life Care is the nation's biggest privately owned nursing home chain with more than 200 facilities in 28 states and about 30,000 employees.

Life Care isn't saying how many residents have died due to the coronavirus. At least 14 died at Life Care Center of Athens in McMinn County, Tennessee, this year.

The Life Care Center of Kirkland in Washington state is linked with 40 deaths, according to The Washington Post. The Life Care Center of Nashoba Valley outside of Boston experienced 17 deaths related to the coronavirus, the Post said.

Carol Hulgan, Life Care's chief nursing officer, said she'll never forget Feb. 29, a Saturday, when she learned that the coronavirus had invaded the Kirkland facility.

"We'll be known as the first long-term care facility to have an outbreak of the deadly virus," she said. "Unfortunately, we won't be the last."

Hulgan said the virus has caused a lot of fear, but they've learned much about it.

"One of the things we can say for sure. It can be deadly to the population we serve," she said.

But Hulgan said Life Care employees "rallied around our residents."

"They ran toward the fire, not away from the fire. They are true heroes, true champions in this fight," she said, noting that they worked long hours and picked up extra shifts with some sleeping in their cars in case they were needed.

Life Care on Thursday dedicated the Mary Denton Fallen Heroes Memorial recognizing the life and work of the 13 employees. A plaque perpetuating their memory will be placed at the Life Care Inforium in Cleveland, the company said.

Denton is a deceased Life Care Center of East Ridge resident who is depicted in the company's logo as the woman in the wheelchair receiving a rose from a nurse.

In 2016, Life Care and its sole owner, Forrest L. Preston, agreed to pay the U.S. Department of Justice $145 million to settle claims they overcharged Medicare and TRICARE for services provided to elderly patients. Life Care denied any wrongdoing and said it was "pleased to put this matter behind us." The company also agreed to participate in a five-year "corporate integrity agreement," to ensure its procedures comply with federal regulations.

The Washington Post has reported that homes within the Life Care network have received more than $48 million in pandemic relief payments, citing federal data.

Contact Mike Pare at mpare@timesfreepress.com. Follow him on Twitter @MikePareTFP.

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