Problems are persisting at Holyoke Soldiers’ Home

Family members say communication is dismal

THIS PAST Sunday, Erin Schadel got a call from the Holyoke Soldiers’ Home, where she planned to visit her father, cancelling the visit. Her father, Frances Hennessy, had a mild fever and had been tested for COVID-19. His initial test came back negative, and the staffer promised to call her when a confirmatory test came back.

“I haven’t received one phone call since,” Schadel said on Thursday.

Schadel found out from media reports that three veterans were tested, two tests came back negative, and one test came back positive, then a follow-up was negative. From the Soldiers’ Home, Schadel said, “I’ve heard nothing since my visit was canceled.”

As COVID-19 swept through the Holyoke Solders’ Home, the Baker administration immediately placed then-Superintendent Bennett Walsh on leave, brought in a new leadership team, and used the National Guard to help with logistics. But family members say that while the new team did bring the virus under control, many problems have persisted, including virtually no communication with family members.

At a Thursday virtual hearing with a legislative oversight committee, which followed on the heels of an in-person hearing on Tuesday at Holyoke Community College, one theme that emerged was the feeling by family members that their loved ones suffered due to staffing shortages or mismanagement that continued even under the interim administration.

Cheryl Malandrinos, whose father-in-law Harry Malandrinos died after contracting COVID-19, referred to a family hotline that was set up by the Baker administration as a “black hole.” She said: “If you could leave a message, no one returned it and most days the mailbox was full.”

Several lawmakers pledged to take immediate action. Sen. Anne Gobi, a Spencer Democrat, said the committee, headed by Rep. Linda Dean Campell and Sen. Walter Timilty, cannot wait until it finishes its investigation. “We absolutely need to get answers sooner rather than later,” Gobi said.

Schadel said she was able to get a return call from a hotline message that she left, after her father told her that his roommate tested positive from COVID-19. The call came from a social worker, who had no answers about whether her father had been tested and what his COVID status was.

Schadel said around that time, in early April, her family felt like Hennessy, a retired firefighter, was “trapped in a building the government is letting burn, and we as a family can only pray the fire doesn’t reach him.”

At one point, Schadel said she was told Hennessy was being moved to a special unit at Holyoke Medical Center for veterans who tested negative for the virus, and she felt relieved. Seven days later, in a conversation with a National Guard member, Schadel learned that her father was never moved but was still at the Holyoke Soldiers’ Home. She learned he had tested positive and was moved to a floor with others who tested positive. After he recovered, he still wasn’t moved off that floor.

The Soldiers’ Home administration, she said, got increasingly defensive. “I was told the legal team would have to be consulted before my questions could be answered,” Schadel said.

During her father’s moves between units, Schadel said his hearing aid was lost, and she was told it was sent for repair. Later, she was told it was lost. Last month, he came to an outdoor visit without his glasses, and she was told he left them in his room. On another visit a week later, she was told his glasses were broken. When she asked if she could pick them up for repair, she was told the lenses were lost.

“My 82-year-old father is without hearing aids and glasses for weeks? This was just last month,” Schadel said.

Malandrinos said in mid-April, with the interim administration in place, she reached her father-in-law on an iPad one Thursday, and he acted “like a zombie,” unable to communicate. She asked about his blood sugar levels, since he was diabetic, and it became clear staff had not been regularly monitoring them. The next day, no one returned her call. She reached the nurse’s station Saturday and was told he was improving. By the following day, he was sent to Holyoke Medical Center. He would die the next day.

Malandrinos and her husband were able to visit the hospital, and the horrific image of her father-in-law on his deathbed, she said, “is an image that will be burned into my brain until the day I die.”

Donna DiPalma’s father Emilio DiPalma was a World War II combat veteran who guarded one of the Nazis at the Nuremburg Trials. When COVID-19 hit the nursing home in late March, DiPalma tried to find out what was happening but left voice messages and emails with no response. “I’d call and call. There was really no means of contact,” she said.

Walsh was put on leave Monday, March 30. “Even up until April 1, no one ever mentioned COVID or that my dad might have it,” DiPalma said. When she FaceTimed with her father April 1, DiPalma was shocked by his appearance. She exclaimed “Oh my God, he has it.” The nurse with him nodded slightly before telling DiPalma that her father had not been tested. “That action told me she couldn’t speak out, but this is her way of showing me what was going on,” DiPalma said.

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Shira Schoenberg

Reporter, CommonWealth

About Shira Schoenberg

Shira Schoenberg is a reporter at CommonWealth magazine. Shira previously worked for more than seven years at the Springfield Republican/MassLive.com where she covered state politics and elections, covering topics as diverse as the launch of the legal marijuana industry, problems with the state's foster care system and the elections of U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Warren and Gov. Charlie Baker. Shira won the Massachusetts Bar Association's 2018 award for Excellence in Legal Journalism and has had several stories win awards from the New England Newspaper and Press Association. Shira covered the 2012 New Hampshire presidential primary for the Boston Globe. Before that, she worked for the Concord (N.H.) Monitor, where she wrote about state government, City Hall and Barack Obama's 2008 New Hampshire primary campaign. Shira holds a master's degree from Columbia University's Graduate School of Journalism.

About Shira Schoenberg

Shira Schoenberg is a reporter at CommonWealth magazine. Shira previously worked for more than seven years at the Springfield Republican/MassLive.com where she covered state politics and elections, covering topics as diverse as the launch of the legal marijuana industry, problems with the state's foster care system and the elections of U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Warren and Gov. Charlie Baker. Shira won the Massachusetts Bar Association's 2018 award for Excellence in Legal Journalism and has had several stories win awards from the New England Newspaper and Press Association. Shira covered the 2012 New Hampshire presidential primary for the Boston Globe. Before that, she worked for the Concord (N.H.) Monitor, where she wrote about state government, City Hall and Barack Obama's 2008 New Hampshire primary campaign. Shira holds a master's degree from Columbia University's Graduate School of Journalism.

Three weeks later, with her father on his deathbed, DiPalma was allowed to visit. She was led into a room with her father and two other men, all of whom had COVID-19 and none of whom were wearing masks.

“I was willing to take the risk for my dad but not two other strangers,” DiPalma said, noting that she is 70 years old. “I asked can we move him so he and I can be alone in his final hours? I was told there’s no place to put him.”