SUSAN KENNEY heard about the COVID-19 outbreak at the Holyoke Soldiers’ Home and the rising veteran death toll on the news. Her father, Charles Lowell, lived at the home, yet his case manager had told her nothing in conversations earlier that day. For 30 hours, Kenney couldn’t get any information from staff about her father’s condition.
“I wrote it on all the windows in my car, ‘is my father alive,’ and I drove to the Soldiers’ Home,” Kenney recalled.
Kenney was one of five veterans’ family members who testified Tuesday before the legislative oversight committee investigating the COVID-19 outbreak at the Holyoke Soldiers’ Home, in which 76 veterans died. An independent investigation by attorney Mark Pearlstein faulted the Soldiers’ Home administration for its decision to combine two dementia units in the chaotic beginning of the pandemic. The home’s top leadership have all lost their jobs, and former superintendent Bennett Walsh and medical director David Clinton are facing criminal charges. But several family members say problems with veterans’ care continue to persist today, even as the state has brought in almost entirely new leadership.
In Kenney’s case, even once she found out her father tested positive for COVID-19, Kenney still couldn’t get regular updates. First, there was paperwork confusion about whether she was her father’s health care proxy. Then, a hotline the state set up for families did not work. “It was very difficult to get through to that hotline on many occasions,” Kenney said. Lowell died April 15.
Rep. Linda Dean Campell and Sen. Walter Timilty, the chairs of the oversight committee, said the goal of the hearings is to improve care at the home and ensure such a tragedy never happens again.
At Tuesday’s hearing at Holyoke Community College, family members told heartbreaking stories of being left in the dark as their loved ones suffered. They detailed the management failures that led to an inability to curb the deadly outbreak – and some problems that have continued after the outbreak was controlled.
Cheryl Turgeon’s father, Dennis Thresher, is a 90-year-old Korean War veteran who loved planes and, until he got sick, enjoyed reading newspapers, playing cards, and bantering with his favorite nurses at the Holyoke Soldiers’ Home.
The weekend of March 28, Thresher became seriously ill. When the National Guard arrived at the facility early the next week, they sent Thresher to the hospital, where he tested negative for COVID-19 – which his family believes was a false negative – and became ill enough that he needed machine support to breathe. “I didn’t know whether to pray to God to save him for me or to take him for him,” Turgeon said.
Turgeon said her father was sent back to Holyoke Soldiers’ Home, after the state brought in a new leadership team, and was left in bed for weeks and weeks, until he developed pressure ulcers and his toes turned black. He had to have a toe amputated and is now wheelchair-bound and depressed.
“The surgeon said to me this shouldn’t have happened and it did,” Turgeon said. “It was a direct result of not having enough staffing to take care of veterans during this time.”
Turgeon said for the past seven months, her father has had little contact with the outside world, and little fresh air. Veterans have not received dental cleanings or eye exams. His doctors and nurses are constantly changing. “Even incarcerated individuals have recreational opportunities outside while these veterans stay in their rooms for days and weeks on end still,” she said.
Turgeon said when she asks questions of the current administration, she rarely gets concrete answers. “I don’t believe the current interim administration fully understands the veterans or the mission of the home, and we’re tired of their indifferent opinions and communication,” Turgeon said.
Roberta Twining said her husband Timothy, 77, a former US Army paratrooper and long-time police sergeant, was moved out of his unit as COVID-19 was spreading and squeezed into a room with two other veterans. He had no walker, wheelchair, or buzzer and “had to crawl and hold onto walls to get to the bathroom down the hall.” He was moved five times within those first couple of weeks and Twining never got a phone call.
Twining said the National Guard did successfully get the pandemic under control. But since that time, she said, staff seem “more concerned about being held responsible rather than being reasonable.” She has gotten little information from staff. When family visits were cancelled, she said her husband was never informed. When there was a positive COVID-19 test in the home, she was unable to find out if the veteran shared a bathroom with her husband. Her husband only learned he was not actually sharing a bathroom when he opened the bathroom door into the next room and discovered an empty room. “It appears the board has a gag order on staff not to tell families anything,” Twining said.
While the home publicized that they were offering yoga and chair massages, Twining said none of that was offered to her husband’s unit. The home advertised a September 11 picnic, but all that meant was they cooked the hamburgers outside – not that the veterans were taken outside, she said. “They’re very much misleading the public,” Twining said.
Laurie Mandeville-Beaudette said when the facility was locked down to visitors in mid-March, she went to the home to bring her father mints and chapstick but was told no one could take the bag to him. She raised concerns about dirty laundry on her father’s floor and was ignored. In FaceTime conversations, he said he “felt like he was in prison.”
Mandeville-Beaudette said the home had never been kept clean and she worried that contributed to the virus’ spread. “I kept Lysol wipes in my dad’s room and cleaned the room, especially hotspots, for years,” she said.
Like other families, Mandeville-Beaudette found out about the COVID-19 outbreak at the home on the news. Her father was moved to Holyoke Medical Center with other veterans who tested negative for the virus, but he then developed symptoms and was diagnosed with COVID-19. He died April 14 at the hospital, thin, frail and on oxygen. Mandeville-Beaudette did get one final visit with him. “I had to do the hardest thing in my life – tell my dad it’s okay to stop fighting and let go,” she said.
Michael Gaudette, whose father George Gaudette died of COVID-19 at Holyoke Medical Center, said when his father entered the Soldiers’ Home, the superintendent bent down to his wheelchair, looked him in the eye and said, “You served our country, now it’s our turn to serve you.” Gaudette said the home administration let those soldiers down. “They protected us, and in the end, we didn’t protect them,” he said.