Families: Protect our ‘heroes on the hill’ at the Soldiers’ Home

  • Cheryl Turgeon, accompanied by her husband, John Turgeon, testifies about her father’s care at the Holyoke Soldiers’ Home during a special joint legislative oversight committee hearing held at Holyoke Community College on Tuesday, Oct. 20, 2020. —STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

  • Cheryl Turgeon testifies before a special joint legislative oversight committee hearing Tuesday at Holyoke Community College as her husband, John Turgeon, listens. Her 90-year-old father, Dennis Thresher, a resident of the Soldiers’ Home in Holyoke, was stricken with symptoms of COVID-19. He survived, but his health troubles have persisted since. STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

  • State Representatives Aaron Vega and Mindy Domb meet during a break in between testimonies at a special joint legislative oversight committee hearing held at Holyoke Community College on Tuesday, Oct. 20, 2020. —STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

  • State Sen. Walter F. Timilty, senate chair of the special joint legislative oversight committee, speaks during the hearing held at Holyoke Community College on Tuesday, Oct. 20, 2020. —STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

  • Laurie Mandeville Beaudette, top left (white sweater), of Springfield and Susan Kenney, right, of Ware talk to media outside the hearings by a special joint legislative oversight committee at Holyoke Community College on Tuesday, Oct. 20, 2020. —STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

  • Laurie Mandeville Beaudette of Springfield puts her hand on the locket containing some ashes of her father, Navy veteran James Mandeville, while speaking to media before testifying at Tuesday’s joint legislative oversight committee hearing at Holyoke Community College. STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

  • Members of a special joint legislative oversight committee listen to testimony from Susan Kenney, at left on far side of the room, during a hearing held at Holyoke Community College on Tuesday, Oct. 20, 2020. —STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

  • Susan Kenney of Ware testifies to a special joint legislative oversight committee hearing held at Holyoke Community College on Tuesday. Kenney’s father, Charles Lowell, an Air Force veteran who served at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base in Ohio during the Vietnam War, died of COVID-19 during the outbreak at the Holyoke Soldiers’ Home. STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

  • State Rep. Linda Dean Campbell, house chair of the special joint legislative oversight committee, thanks Susan Kenney for her testimony at a hearing held at Holyoke Community College on Tuesday, Oct. 20, 2020. —STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

  • Supporters of increased funding for the Holyoke Soldiers’ Home stand outside Holyoke Community College before a legislative oversight committee hearing Tuesday. STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

  • Veterans of Foreign Wars District 7 Commander Troy Henke, left, of Westfield, and VFW District 9 Commander Scott Gagnon of Becket join a standout at the entrance to Holyoke Community College prior to a special joint legislative oversight committee hearing held there on Tuesday. STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

  • State Rep. Mindy Domb, right, listens to testimony by Susan Kenney of Ware, left, during a special joint legislative oversight committee hearing held at Holyoke Community College on Tuesday, Oct. 20, 2020. —STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

Staff Writer
Published: 10/20/2020 7:56:02 PM

HOLYOKE — Susan Kenney first heard about a coronavirus outbreak at the Soldiers’ Home in Holyoke on the evening news in late March. The Ware resident’s 78-year-old father, Charles Lowell, lived at the home.

“I just found it odd that I had spoken to my father’s case manager twice that day and there was no mention of it,” Kenney said, crying as she spoke on Tuesday. “I didn’t get an answer for over 30 hours. The numbers kept rising and I still didn’t know if my father was still alive. So I wrote it on all the windows on my car: ‘Is my father dead or alive?’ And I started to drive to the Soldiers’ Home.”

Lowell died of COVID-19 on April 15 — one of at least 76 veteran residents of the home who died of the coronavirus disease in March, April and May.

Kenney spoke Tuesday before a joint oversight committee of the state Legislature that is investigating the Soldiers’ Home outbreak. The hearing, which took place at Holyoke Community College, was for family members of those impacted by the outbreak. They are the first of several hearings that lawmakers have organized to hear from family members, staff and others.

State Rep. Linda Dean Campbell, D-Methuen, co-chaired the proceedings with state Sen. Walter Timilty, D-Milton. Holyoke’s two state lawmakers — Rep. Aaron Vega, D-Holyoke, and Sen. John Velis, D-Westfield — are on the oversight committee, and have said that lawmakers want to learn what to improve at the Soldiers’ Home. State Rep. Mindy Domb, D-Amherst, is also on the committee.

“Sharing these stories will be difficult, but it’s part of the healing process,” Vega said. “We are now witnesses to the story, and hearing and validating what happened is important to move on to the future.”

The hearing comes almost a month after Attorney General Maura Healey announced indictments against former Soldiers’ Home superintendent Bennett Walsh and former medical director David Clinton. The two will be arraigned Nov. 5 on criminal neglect charges stemming from their roles during the outbreak — what Healey said are the country’s first criminal cases against nursing home officials during the pandemic.

An independent investigation commissioned by Gov. Charlie Baker found that leadership made “substantial errors” that likely contributed to the death toll at the facility, that Walsh “was not qualified to manage a long-term care facility,” and that high-ranking Baker administration officials failed to act decisively when informed of the developing crisis.

Emotional moments

Kenney’s tearful testimony was one of several emotional moments during the proceedings.

Laurie Beaudette, of Springfield, described how her 83-year-old father, James Mandeville, became withdrawn after the Soldiers’ Home was locked down on March 14. In normal times, Beaudette played nightly card games with her father, who lived in the home for 16 years.

“He relied on me for almost everything,” Beaudette said. But after the lockdown, she couldn’t see her father, whose hearing made video calls difficult for him. “He couldn’t understand why I couldn’t be there for him.”

Mandeville eventually contracted the coronavirus and was transferred to Holyoke Medical Center. Beaudette found herself without her father on Easter Sunday for the first time ever, so she drove to the hospital in desperation. She was allowed to don full protective gear and have one last visit with her father. He died two days later.

“I just remember screaming in pain,” Beaudette said. “I couldn’t believe it.”

Roberta Twining’s husband, Timothy, is a 77-year-old Soldiers’ Home resident who contracted COVID-19 but recovered. She said that during the outbreak, her husband was moved to another floor, where he was squeezed into a room with two others.

“He also stated that he had no water, wheelchair or buzzer and that he literally had to crawl over to the wall to get to the bathroom down the hall,” Twining, of East Longmeadow, said. She added that during the outbreak, her husband was moved five times and has had five doctors since then.

Problems at the home

Twining complained that the leadership at the home continues to ignore family’s concerns or suggestions, that information coming out of the home is inadequate, and that the home remains understaffed.

“Everything continues to be a secret,” she said. “It appears this board has a gag order on the staff not to tell the families anything.”

Twining and others called for the state to build a new Soldiers’ Home in Holyoke with basics like private baths and showers, and funding for ample staffing at the facility.

Cheryl Turgeon’s 90-year-old father, Dennis Thresher, is a Soldiers’ Home resident who was sent to the hospital with a high fever and dropping oxygen levels during the outbreak. She said she faced the difficult decision of changing life directives for her father because medical staff told her a ventilator wouldn’t be available.

“I didn’t know whether I should pray to God to save him for me, or to take him for him,” Turgeon said. Her father survived, but his troubles continued once he returned to the Soldiers’ Home because of understaffing, Turgeon said.

“He was left in a bed for weeks ... until his toes turned black, and he had pressure ulcers and they said they were going to cut off his left toe and his right foot,” she said.

Turgeon said her father and others now feel isolated, shut in their rooms unable to go outside. Visiting hours are held during the day Tuesday through Saturday, and that does not accommodate working families, she said.

Like others who testified, Turgeon is a member of the Holyoke Soldiers’ Home Coalition, a group of family members and local veteran advocates that has called for the state to make substantial improvements to the facility. Turgeon said the families want a rotating seat on the facility’s board of trustees, and they want lawmakers to keep a sharp eye on the facility.

“They are heroes on the hill,” she said of the Soldiers’ Home residents. “They need a new home, they need adult day care, they need to be protected and they shouldn’t have beds that are 13 inches apart and shared bathrooms.”

Tuesday’s hearing was held in a large open room at Holyoke Community College, where only 40 people were allowed inside. Media were let into the room only briefly for photos and video, though the proceedings were also streamed live online.

Family members testifying at the hearing were greeted at the Homestead Avenue entrance of the college by members of the Holyoke Soldiers’ Home Coalition, who waved signs with slogans like “Fund Holyoke Soldiers’ Home now,” “We love our family members,” and “Our vets deserve the best.”

“It was very heartbreaking,” Pamela Quirk, of Monson, said of the outbreak. Quirk is the former director of nursing at the home who worked there for 29 years until 2015. She was standing with her husband, Kevin, whose uncle lived in the Soldiers’ Home. “This is my way of trying to make sure it never happens again,” Pamela Quirk said.

Speaking over the phone after the hearing, Velis said he found families’ continuing concerns over communication with the home to be troubling.

“It’s not right that family members still don’t feel like that open line of communication is there,” Velis said.

The oversight committee is holding another virtual hearing on Thursday for those not comfortable with testifying in person or unable to do so. Another hearing next week will focus on the testimony of staffers, and Velis said he hopes current residents who can will speak to the committee.

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


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