The Toll: Losing someone to COVID-19 in a nursing home
More than 40% of the country’s now more than 180,000 COVID-19 deaths are linked to nursing homes, according to a New York Times database. WBFO’s Older Adults Reporter Tom Dinki has been covering the impact on local nursing homes throughout the pandemic. In this week's story from “The Toll,” he spoke to family members who lost loved ones in two local long-term care facilities.
The coronavirus pandemic has infected more than 13,110 people across Western New York. The virus has also claimed the lives of at least 774 people in our region. WBFO’s “The Toll: Western New York Stories of Loss & Survival in a Pandemic” will air weekly on Thursdays during Morning Edition in August and September, telling some of the personal stories behind those numbers.
Last December, 93-year-old Grace D’Angelo Tutton was newly-widowed and starting to show signs of dementia. So her children, including daughter, Victoria D’Angelo, decided to move her into Father Baker Manor, a nursing home in Orchard Park.
“A couple minutes away from my sister's, a couple of minutes away from my brother and other brothers,” D’Angelo said. “So we thought this would be a good quality, skilled nursing home."
When New York State banned nursing home visits in March because of the coronavirus pandemic, D’Angelo and her family replaced visits with FaceTime sessions. By early April, Tutton seemed to be doing well. She even tested negative for the virus during a routine test that was administered on a Friday.
“Well, over the weekend, I don't know what happened. I just think that there was just a surge of positive cases,” D’Angelo said. “My mother tested positive [for COVID-19].”
In a matter of a few days, Tutton went from asymptomatic to requiring an oxygen tank to breathe. She was so sick that Father Baker Manor agreed to wheel her to the facility's side door in order to see her family.
D’Angelo and other family members stood on the nursing home lawn wearing face masks, gowns and gloves.
“We told my mother how much we loved her,” D’Angelo said, fighting back tears.
It was family tradition to sing at birthdays and anniversaries, and one of their favorite songs was “Hey Good Lookin’,” the 1951 country hit by Hank Williams.
“So, one of my brothers started singing the song,” D’Angelo said. “Maybe she heard us, we don't know, she was on oxygen. And we sang her the song and we told her we loved her. And she passed away early in the morning of that night.
“We just couldn't believe that it just happened so fast. I mean, this virus is just ruthless.”
More than 6,400 people have died of COVID-19 in nursing homes across New York State, including at least 373 Western New Yorkers, according to state data. It’s likely that thousands more have died after being transported to hospitals, but the state won’t say how many.
Father Baker Manor has the most listed nursing home deaths in Western New York with 65. Twenty-nine of the deaths occurred at the facility, while 37 occurred at the St. Joseph Post-Acute Care Center, which is under the manor's license, according a Catholic Health spokesperson.
However, D’Angelo said she doesn’t necessarily blame the facility for her mom’s death. The federal governmentrates Father Baker Manor five stars, the highest rating, and when the virus hit, the manor conducted a widespread, rapid testing program.
“I think they did the best they could under the circumstances,” she said.
Ondrea Pate feels very differently about The Villages of Orleans, a one-star nursing home in Albion that accounts for more than half of all COVID-19 deaths to occur in Orleans County.
Pate’s mother, 80-year-old Connie Brakenbury, of Waterport, was only meant to be at The Villages for a short rehabilitation stay. She had just been hospitalized for dehydration in March and doctors said she needed to build her strength back up.
When it was time to take Brakenbury home in April, The Villages told Pate that her mother had been exposed to the virus but tested negative.
“I got on the phone with the director of nursing and I said, ‘Was it a direct exposure?’ [She said,] ‘Well, I can't tell you that.’ She refused to tell us anything,” Pate said. “[She said,] ‘You just have to decide whether you want to bring your mother home or not. She’s just been exposed.’”
Pate’s father, Dick, decided to take the risk and bring Brakenbury home. Then the family read in the newspaper that The Villages had 27 positive cases and learned the details of Brakenbury’s exposure.
“My dad was talking to my mom, and she said to us, ‘Oh yeah, my roommate had COVID,’” Pate said. “So what they did was put her back into a room, after she tested negative, with a woman that was positive.”
Sure enough, a few days later, Brakenbury developed a fever and tested positive for the virus. After a short hospital stay, she was sent to another nursing home, Orchard Manor Rehabilitation and Nursing Center, located in Medina.
The family went there for a window visit on Mother’s Day, but Brakenbury couldn’t even sit up or open her eyes. Doctors said COVID-19 had taken a toll on her and that she wouldn’t make it, Pate said, so the family agreed to a do-not-resuscitate order. Brakenbury died two days later.
Even though Brakenbury died in Medina, Pate said her mom’s life really ended at The Villages.
“She didn't go in there to end her life in a nursing home. She went in there to get better and to come home. It ended up killing her in the long run,” she said.
Pate was also a nurse at The Villages for seven years when it was a county-operated nursing home, but she said she quit once it was sold to out-of-town owners and the quality of care declined.
“I really fought for that place for years, and then to watch them kill my mother, it very much hurts,” she said.
Shortly after her mom’s death, Pate started an online petition for The Villages’ director of nursing to be replaced. She also started a Facebook group called “Fix The Villages of Orleans,” where residents’ families are sharing their own stories.
Now both the Orleans County District Attorney and the state Attorney General are investigating The Villages’ alleged mishandling of the pandemic.
“It was very reassuring to see that somebody was actually listening to us,” Pate said, “and we weren't just going to become another statistic.”
That’s important to D’Angelo, too. She wants her mother, Tutton, to be remembered not just as a number but as a retired Our Lady of Victory Hospital nurse, as an active member of her church and for her many handwritten notes. Tutton would often cut out a newspaper clipping and mail it someone whom she thought might enjoy it.
“She would probably be the last one that would want anybody to dote on her, or pay extra attention to her,” D’Angelo said. “She was so giving, she would want the other people taken care of first.”
Brakenbury, Pate’s mother, was a homemaker who loved to dress up. Pate said she often wore purple and always made sure her clothes had pockets. But above all, she loved her family.
“I think she would really want to be known as fun and loving toward her family and her children,” Pate said. “I mean, it really did, in the long run, mean everything to her.”
Pate said that despite the pain her family has endured, she hopes the pandemic will ultimately improve the care older adults receive in nursing homes.
“These people are entrusted to us,” she said. “We're supposed to take care of them. We're supposed to love them, and we're supposed to give them dignity and quality life in the end when they need it.”
The U.S. Department of Justice is currently considering an investigation into New York and three other states, all of which ordered nursing homes to take in COVID-19 hospital patients during the early months of the pandemic.