Families talk about the outbreak of the Holyoke Covid-19 soldiers’ house

“She gave up her life jacket to save a man,” said her daughter Cheryl Blais, recounting a favorite story of the man who was both Dear. His father did not drown that day in the Pacific. But Covid-19 would drown many decades later, on the morning of March 30, when the disease flooded his lungs with fluid.

Blais, who was 90 years old, spent his last months of life at the Soldiers House in Holyoke, 90 miles west of Boston. As the virus devastated the facility, no fewer than 94 veterans lost their lives, at least 76 of those who lost the Covid-19 positive.

In one line of that report, a social worker mentions a decision superiors made to consolidate healthy, infected veterans into one room. The worker noted that moving the former soldiers downstairs was “like moving the concentration camp: we (were) moving these unknown veterans to die.”

Another heartbreaking interview in the investigator’s report described a health worker calming down a veteran while “in front of him is a veteran who is moaning and actively dying.”

The worker explained that nearby “there is another veteran who is alert and oriented, even though he is in a closed dementia unit. There is no curtain to protect him from the man” in his last agony.

Holyoke is not the only American nursing home that saw these horrors during the height of the pandemic. In April, a tip led police to find 17 bodies at a nursing home in New Jersey. In another case, 60 bodies were found in trucks outside a New York funeral home. And a nursing home in Washington became the epicenter of that outbreak of the state.
Massachusetts Veterans House made terrible mistakes during coronavirus outbreak, Governor said
In early June, a quarter of all American nursing homes reported at least one death, and federal data showed that at least 26,000 nursing home residents had succumbed to the virus.

Each statistic is attached to a story, often a breathtaking blow to the story, about someone’s father or mother dying alone, out of breath. That was the horrible reality for many at the Soldiers House in Holyoke.

The grieving families of veterans hope that by telling the stories of their loved ones, men and women who valiantly served their country, other nursing home tragedies like this can be avoided.

‘Why in God’s name would they do this to these vets?’

At the Soldiers House in Holyoke, Robert Blais lived in Section 2-North, and was one of the veterans who had to join what was to become a death row in 1-North, with beds set up outside with infected. patients

Her daughter was one of the lucky few who was able to see her father before he passed away, despite the chaotic conditions.

“When I came in and saw everything, I was surprised,” he said. “They had people eating their lunch while others died by their side. Why in God’s name would they do this to these vets? They literally sent them into a death trap.”

The official Covid-19 death count in Holyoke is 76, but Blais believes that number is higher. Her father, for example, had a blood sample taken on March 27 and was told that the results would return in five to seven days. He did not live to see them. So your death certificate doesn’t say Covid-19.

“I called the doctor and asked him to change the death certificate to Covid-19,” he said. After much convincing her, he added the actual cause of death. But other families in the same position tried and failed.

Blais is left with his last happy memory of his father, a week before his death. Her family threw a birthday party for Robert, which she was unable to attend as facilities limited visits during the pandemic.

“I was standing at the window blowing kisses,” he said.

Behind this perfectly manicured facade at Soldiers' Home in Holyoke, scenes of confusion occurred in March.
The US Department of Veterans Affairs cited Holyoke for failing to meet the Uniform Federal Accessibility Standards. A follow-up study from the state said that only 5% of the beds in the home met VA standards, and most rooms exceeded the two-bed limit.

And in most cases, six residents would share a single bathroom, conditions that raised concerns about infection control. The studio recommended renovating the building, but a 2012 proposal for a new building never raised the necessary funds to start.

Families are now determined to rectify the problems at home that officials began to raise a decade ago.

Honoring his father’s commitment to service, he enlisted in a fight of his own, working with families of other Soldiers’ House victims to build a new 53,000-square-foot addition to the facility. Such a project would add 120 private rooms and increase the capacity of the home to 270 long-term care residents.

“My dad knows that I will fight to the end for justice and for the facilities to be what they should have been seven years ago, “said Blais.

“He looked like he was in a coma with his eyes wide open”

Laurie Mandeville Beaudette is one of the women with whom Blais shares his pain and a sense of renewed purpose.

Her father, James Mandeville, 83, had served in the US Navy for four years during the Korean War, and he spent much of that time deployed in Europe.

Shown here is James Mandeville when he served in the U.S. Navy.

At the end of his life he lived in Holyoke, in a narrow room with three other vets, with beds only 2 feet away, he said. As the pandemic mounted, Mandeville had started living in a private room, and when his daughter visited him every day, he disinfected every area of ​​his room with Lysol.

“I didn’t think the virus would go into a private room, but it did,” he said.

Mandeville was diagnosed with Covid-19 and sent to a nearby hospital, forming a sort of veterans wing with dozens of others transferred from the Soldiers’ House.

He had trouble breathing, gasped, stopped talking, and finally became totally numb.

“In our last FaceTime it looked like he was in a coma with his eyes wide open,” said her daughter. “At Easter it was a disaster because I couldn’t get the image out of my head.”

She managed to enter the hospital to see him before he died, wearing full-body personal protective equipment, including the jumpsuit. She let him know it was okay to go.

“He squeezed my hand. That was it,” Beaudette said. “Even if he could have opened his eyes, he wouldn’t have recognized me.”

Her father passed away two days later, on April 14. A hospital worker called her to say that she had taken Mandeville’s hands and prayed for him while taking the last breath.

The ashes of James Mandeville sit in an urn in his daughter's house, symbol of a tragedy still without conclusion.

In the past two and a half months, she has also transformed her grief into the family reform effort. On Thursday, Governor Baker responded to his independent investigator’s report, with ideas that included legislation to clarify supervision rules for state veterans’ homes and add staff.

“We really feel like we are gaining momentum,” he said. “He is helping a lot with the duel.”

Survivors in the house will not be the same

Cheryl Turgeon did not lose her father, but he is no longer the same man who had read the newspapers every morning in Holyoke and joked with the nurses.

Her father Dennis Thresher, 89, served in the US Air Force during the Korean War, rising to the rank of sergeant while flying aboard bombers. His role, in which he and his crew defied enemy fire, would earn him a Peace Medal.

When the pandemic started, he said he had to “call every day to make sure things were being taken care of.”

After developing symptoms, Thresher was transported out of Holyoke and admitted to the hospital on March 31. He spent six days in a Covid-19 flat. He lost 30 pounds.

The United States Attorney begins an investigation into the Massachusetts Veterans Nursing Home that suffers a fatal Covid-19 outbreak.

He was isolated for weeks, feeling lonely and depressed, as conditions at home worsened.

“I know (a nurse) who said they were bagging two bodies a day,” said Turgeon. “This is 2020. That shouldn’t have happened.”

Normally he visited his father three or four times a week. After three months, she shared a socially distant air hug with his father on Friday June 19. But the meeting was bittersweet. Seeing how he had regressed, she held back tears.

Cheryl Turgeon shares a socially estranged hug with her father in June.  She survived, but the virus greatly weakened her, including affecting her circulation.

“I pray that he can return to the baseline, but he has not walked since he returned,” he said. “He is a strong man. I am fighting for him and he is fighting with me.”

They are campaigning to build a new soldiers house

One of the people leading the fight to comfort families and renovate Holyoke is the facility’s former associate superintendent, John Paradis.

He was the second person in charge there from 2013 to 2015, when he resigned in protest of the poor installation conditions. She wrote letters and spoke to elected officials to complain about problems there, including staffing, an inequity in funding between the state’s two veteran homes, and small rooms.

Feeling like putting vets in such close proximity was an obvious risk of infection.

The problems reached a critical point in December 2015. Paradis and his boss, former superintendent Paul Barabani, knew that there were federal funds. on the table to fund 65% of the proposed new building they hoped could safely house veterans. But the state of Massachusetts did not provide the last 35% to get approval for the project.

Now only The kind of outbreak Paradis feared had hit Holyoke.

“All of these things, when put together, created this perfect storm for Covid-19,” he said.

This type of perfect storm is a warning of what outbreaks might do in other nursing homes or veteran’s homes if we are not all prepared for it.

“Making sure this tragedy never happens again is the greatest legacy we can give our parents,” said Beaudette.