More families speak of loss at Soldiers’ Home in Holyoke

  • Cheryl Malandrinos of Wilbraham speaks virtually before a joint committee of the state House and Senate, which is investigating the COVID-19 outbreak at the Soldiers’ Home that led to the deaths of at least 76 veteran residents in March, April and May of 2020. Malandrinos’ father-in-law, Harry Malandrinos, was one of those to die during the outbreak. SCREENSHOT/STATE LEGISLATURE

  • Donna DiPalma of Ellington, Connecticut, speaks virtually before a joint committee of the state House and Senate, which is investigating the COVID-19 outbreak at the Soldiers’ Home that led to the deaths of at least 76 veteran residents in March, April and May of 2020. DiPalma's father — Emilio “Leo” DiPalma, a World War II veteran who guarded Nazi prisoners during the Nuremberg trials — was one of those to die during the outbreak. SCREENSHOT/STATE LEGISLATURE

  • Erin Schadel speaks virtually before a joint committee of the state House and Senate, which is investigating the COVID-19 outbreak at the Soldiers’ Home that led to the deaths of at least 76 veteran residents in March, April and May of 2020. Schadel’s father, Francis “Skip” Hennessy, is a current Soldiers’ Home resident who contracted the coronavirus and survived. SCREENSHOT/STATE LEGISLATURE

Staff Writer
Published: 10/22/2020 3:50:48 PM

HOLYOKE — Cheryl Malandrinos’ father-in-law, Harry, was denied a bed when he first applied to live at the Soldiers’ Home. So the family put him in a more expensive long-term care facility and Malandrinos was forced to sell her in-laws’ house to pay the extra medical bills.

Eventually, Malandrinos, of Wilbraham, called and pleaded her father-in-law’s case to the Soldiers’ Home. Because his needs had changed, the home was able to find him a bed.

“At the time, I didn’t know this blessing of affordable care would turn into a curse,” Malandrinos said Thursday.

Malandrinos noticed that employees were overworked and the facility understaffed, leading to injuries for her father-in-law, she said. Then the facility was locked down on March 14 in an effort to stop COVID-19 from spreading. Malandrinos didn’t know that her visit with Harry the week before would be her last until she saw him on his deathbed at Holyoke Medical Center on April 20.

“He smiled, though his mouth hung open and his tongue was enlarged,” Malandrinos said. Harry Malandrinos was pushing up on legs he hadn’t been able to walk on for a year, desperately trying to catch a breath, she said. “That is an image that will be burned into my brain until the day that I die.”

Malandrinos was speaking virtually in front of a joint committee of the state House and Senate, which is investigating the COVID-19 outbreak at the Soldiers’ Home that contributed to the deaths of at least 76 veteran residents between March and May. Thursday’s hearing was the second focused on families of Soldiers’ Home residents, and is part of a series of hearings the state lawmakers are holding.

State lawmakers are the latest to investigate the massive outbreak. A former federal prosecutor hired by Gov. Charlie Baker to conduct an independent probe found that Soldiers’ Home leadership made “substantial errors” that likely contributed to the death toll and that high-ranking Baker administration officials failed to act decisively when informed of the developing crisis.

Last month, Attorney General Maura Healey announced that former Soldiers’ Home superintendent Bennett Walsh and former medical director David Clinton had been indicted on criminal neglect charges stemming from their roles during the outbreak. Federal prosecutors and the state’s inspector general are also investigating the outbreak.

Three people spoke at Thursday’s forum, all of them describing the Soldiers’ Home staff as shorthanded and the outbreak as a horrifying ordeal. Erin Schadel, whose father Francis “Skip” Hennessy is a current Soldiers’ Home resident who contracted the coronavirus and survived, said that her father’s troubles continue to this day.

Schadel said that it was only through the news media that she learned information about the outbreak, and that continues to be the case. She said the outbreak has taken a toll on her father, whose hearing aids, glasses, clothing and picture of his wife were all lost amid multiple moves around the building during the crisis. After he was transferred to a COVID-positive floor and recovered, she said, her father begged not to be sent back to his original floor.

“He would comment, ‘If only you knew,’” Schadel recalled. “And then he would stop talking about it.”

Addressing the lawmakers, Schadel asked them to close their eyes and imagine what it is like to be an elderly resident of the Soldiers’ Home, living in a cramped room with few comforts from home. The smiling faces and camaraderie around you keep you going, as do visits from your family, Schadel said, painting a picture for the legislators. But soon, she added, those faces are “scarred with worry” and new protocols mean you can’t leave your room.

“People around you are sick, everyone is scared but you can’t hold your daughter’s hand, your son can’t tell you it’s OK and you haven’t heard from your spouse. Maybe they are sick, too,” she said. “People begin to die, alone, some of whom you have watched die and you wonder if you are next.”

“More people die around you, you are scared, you are confused, you are alone,” Schadel continued. “You are moved again and again. You are sick, and now it’s hard to even know where you are. Now, ask yourself: If that was you, what changes would you want to be made to ensure that doesn’t happen again?”

For Donna DiPalma, of Ellington, Connecticut, accountability — and the desire to see concrete protocols implemented — drew her to testify on Thursday. Her father, Emilio “Leo” DiPalma, died of COVID-19 on April 8 at the Soldiers’ Home.

During the outbreak, DiPalma said she was unable to get any information about her father, a World War II veteran who guarded Nazi prisoners during the Nuremberg trials. Eventually, she received a call from the home telling her that her father was in bad shape and that she should come visit if she wanted to see him one last time.

When she arrived at the Soldiers’ Home, DiPalma said she dressed in protective gear and was then brought up to her father’s room, where two other coronavirus-positive patients were also living and were not wearing masks. She was able to talk to her dad, though he was not communicative, and the next day was able to see him shortly before he died.

But DiPalma was troubled by the fact that one of the other men remained in the room as her father died. She said she felt that jeopardized her safety and likely caused anguish to the man.

“I’m sure his family won’t be too thrilled to hear that their father was there and he was dying right next to him,” she said.

DiPalma stressed to lawmakers that they must put in place processes and protocols to ensure that nothing similar to the outbreak ever happens again.

“My father trusted me with his life,” she said. “But I wasn’t able to protect him, and I guess that will be with me forever.”

The oversight committee’s hearings are scheduled to continue next week, when Soldiers’ Home staffers and others are expected to testify.

Dusty Christensen can be reached at dchristensen@gazettenet.com.


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