U.S. Army Air Corps veteran John J. MacKay survived the Burma Theater during World War II, went on to marry and have five daughters, and spent most of his career as a beloved high school guidance counselor in a hilltown in Western Massachusetts.
Now, just a month shy of his 100th birthday, family members say they believe he is fighting for his life and fear he is virtually alone in the battle.
MacKay is among dozens of veterans confined to the Soldiers’ Home in Holyoke who have contracted the novel coronavirus. Family members are gripped with mounting concern as the numbers of new confirmed cases among residents and staff climb, and the death toll rises.
MacKay’s family says they have been stymied by a family hotline number that often rings with no one to answer, and newly introduced state caseworkers unable to provide detailed updates on his condition as MacKay shuttles between the Soldiers’ Home and Holyoke Medical Center.
He remains among the living, but his family feels his life hangs in the balance in an unsettled management landscape — and as information becomes harder and harder to come by.
“It’s the not knowing that’s absolutely mind-boggling. We can’t get to him, so he’s in this alone,” said Betsy Crupi, of Scituate, one of MacKay’s four surviving daughters. “Every hour I feel like, I’m not sure if my father is even still alive … Once you’re past a certain age, they’re picking and choosing who they will help make it through this, and I think my father is not on that list.”
The latest figures provided from the state: 25 veterans have died in recent weeks, with 22 testing positive for the virus; an additional 65 of the roughly 200 residents were also infected. Meanwhile, 67 staff have tested positive — an increase from 18 on Sunday. Another 210 tested negative.
The Soldiers’ Home, one of two state-run nursing homes for veterans, is one of a number of assisted living facilities and nursing homes nationwide that have been pummeled by the COVID-19 pandemic. The first to make headlines was the Life Care Center outside Seattle, which yielded 37 deaths and now faces a $600,000 fine for mishandling the outbreak.
The Holyoke Soldiers’ Home has historically been a respected veterans and elder care facility since opening in 1952, with a long waiting list for its nursing care facility. However, Superintendent Bennett Walsh was put on paid leave in the wake of the outbreak, facing accusations he was slow to react to the first diagnosis on March 21, and that initially kept state and local officials in the dark.
Bennett denied those allegations in a public statement two days the outbreak came to light, calling them “outrageous.”
Interim administrators and workers from the state’s Executive Office of Health and Human Services swept in about a week ago, but MacKay’s family says they don’t feel the level of care, attention, or communication with relatives paralyzed with worry has improved.
Susan Regensburger, a retired schoolteacher from Westfield, is one of MacKay’s middle daughters. She has struggled to monitor her father’s plight from a resort in Mexico, where she and her husband spend every winter. In every practical sense, they have become reluctantly trapped in a tropical paradise by border closings and travel restrictions. They are among about a dozen guests allowed to remain on the premises at at timeshare in Playa del Carmen.
Regensburger said her family was thrilled when her father gained entrance to the Soldiers’ Home in 2016. Her mother had died three years before while the couple was living together at Providence Place, an independent living community in Holyoke. The couple was so close, family members feared MacKay would not survive long without his wife of more than 60 years.
But, MacKay thrived at the Soldiers’ Home, she said — up early for meals, engaged in activities and a staff favorite.
“There was never that terrible odor there that most nursing homes have. The staff was wonderful … they loved him like he was their own family member … I had no complaints. He had no complaints. He was very happy there,” Regensburger said. “This just feels surreal.”
At 99, her father still dresses himself each morning as if he is going to work at his former job as a Gateway Regional High School guidance counselor.
“I’m talking corduroys, a button-up shirt. Some days he’ll go for the sport coat and a tie,” Regensburger recounted.
While Walsh said in his only public statement that the facility called each family with news of the first coronavirus diagnosis on March 21, Regensburger said she didn’t hear of the percolating crisis until a friend texted her after reading a news article. She asked how MacKay was doing. Regensburger responded that she speaks to her father nearly every day and thought he was fine.
“I called the nurses’ station immediately, and they said: ‘Yes, we have two cases.’ The paper said one, but they said two. And, she said they weren’t on my father’s floor,” Regensburger recalled.
Since then, she said it has been rather difficult to get information. Her father was transferred to a new room with three other patients, so his phone line has been disconnected. A staffer set up a Zoom video call last week, but herself fell ill. The family hotline often went unanswered last week, according to MacKay’s daughters.
A spokeswoman for the Department of Health and Human Services acknowledged the family hotline became overwhelmed and the state sent in reinforcements on Monday.
“A clinical team comprised of an additional nurse case manager and care coordinators was deployed to provide immediate support for family communications at the Holyoke Soldiers’ Home,” said Brooke Karanovich, a spokeswoman for that state agency, which oversees the facility.
“During this COVID-19 outbreak, families are understandably very eager to receive frequent updates about their loved ones. The voicemail box for the hotline is listened to and cleared daily, and family members who leave voicemails receive a call about their veteran resident,” Karanovich added. “This ongoing support has also allowed staff time to make proactive calls to health care proxies to give updates on veteran residents.”
As the crisis continued to bloom, patients were separated between the sick and the well. MacKay was taken to Holyoke Medical Center, where well patients were being quarantined and critically ill patients were being treated.
Her father found himself in a difficult limbo. He fell in neither category after having tested positive on April 2.
To complicate matters, a “do not resuscitate order” had been put in place by MacKay’s family, after another relative had languished on life support for years after a stroke. For that reason, MacKay was transferred back to the Soldiers’ Home over the weekend, according to Regensburger.
“The DNR was not in place for that reason. We just didn’t want him to be connected to a machine for years if he became a vegetable after a stroke or something,” she said.
She and her husband, MacKay’s health care proxy, rescinded that order, and MacKay went back to Holyoke Medical Center on Monday. Michael Regensburger said he spoke with a physician in the emergency room, who said his father-in-law wasn’t “symptomatic enough” for an admission, with oxygen levels in the low 90s. MacKay appeared to be fighting the virus off on his own, the doctor said.
Michael Regensburger said they were advised by staff not to have a barrage of separate family members calling the hotline, and to appoint the health care proxy as a single point of contact.
“I called this morning, and explained to them that I didn’t expect to have a long conversation with them and I’d be very concise, so as not to offer them an excuse not to call me back,” he said. “Once someone called me back hours later, he identified himself as a caseworker and said my father-in-law’s condition had not changed … but it had, significantly. His oxygen levels had dropped into the 80s.”
During its daily email briefing to the press, state workers assigned to the project said nurse case managers and social workers from the staff were brought onsite on Monday.
“I’m just so upset about him potentially dying along,” Susan Regensburger said. “This is criminal, I think … and I never thought those words would come out of my mouth about the Holyoke Soldiers’ Home.”
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