In late-December Albina Meyers died. She was a resident at Huntington Living Center in Waterloo. Now, her daughter, Jill Sandroni, is calling for change at nursing homes across New York State to ensure that quality of care does not fall off during emergent situations, or public health crisis’.
Sandroni spoke with the Finger Lakes Times and a Syracuse-area television station last week. Over the weekend, she caught up with FingerLakes1.com to talk about some of the changes she’s hopeful for in the future.
“When we started getting letters about residents testing positive at the beginning of November my concern was ‘Is it in my mother’s unit?’,” Sandroni recalled. Her mother suffered from dementia, along with a number of other health issues. “I kept asking and [Finger Lakes Health] wouldn’t give it. We kept getting emails about how many staff had it, residents, recoveries, and deaths,” she continued. “All of that was good, but they wouldn’t keep us updated on how individual wings were doing.”
She said that concern was born out of the worry that many have seen play out at nursing homes across New York: When the virus gets inside a facility, even the best mitigation strategies can come up short of preventing spread. Especially within individual portions of the facility.
“It was frustrating because I didn’t know if it was in my mother’s unit. My concern immediately was, because it’s a special needs unit, who can’t remember to keep masks on, or wander all over the unit,” Sandroni recalled. There was a feeling of helplessness that she says continued over the next month.
Approval to share that information – whether COVID-19 had spread to any individual resident’s unit – was not given until early December. Sandroni says a social worker told her the approval came around December 6, 2020. Approximately one month after the positive cases began being reported by Finger Lakes Health.
“I got the call on December 9 that she was diagnosed with COVID,” Sandroni said of her mother. “That’s when communication fell off the deep end.” She says the facility was short-staffed because of the virus. While Sandroni doesn’t hold any hard feelings against those working on the floors of Huntington Living Center – she is frustrated with Finger Lakes Health and administrators’ early actions. “I don’t have any complaints with the people working inside the facility, they were doing everything they could with what was available, they were super short staffed,” she continued.
Sandroni would call and no one would answer. “I thought that was a big problem,” she explained. “Some days I would go an entire day or more without a phone call or update. There were a couple days where I would call-and-call and no answer. So I showed up.”
She range the door bell at 4:30 p.m. on a Sunday afternoon, and inquired directly about her mother’s condition, after not hearing anything for more than a day.
Albina wasn’t doing well. “They told me that her appetite was lacking, and wasn’t really communicating with anyone,” Sandroni explained of the status update that followed her spontaneous visit. After that update, she spoke with administration of Huntington, who apologized for the lack of communication. “All of the information was on the computer,” she said. “That was the frustrating part. Anyone there could look it up.”
That’s part of what Sandroni hopes changes in the future. When it comes to keeping families in the loop about their loved ones care.
“[Huntington] admitted they dropped the ball,” she recalled of that conversation with administrators. “Not that it was going to help the situation at that point, but [FLH] was working to improve it – try to get more staff – and all that stuff.”
Sandroni says the administrators offered a visit for the following day because at that point, the consensus was that Albina was terminal. “So I started going in on December 22. I was there for an hour each of the following four days, fully-garbed for protection from COVID-19.”
This timeline coincides with a surprise inspection at Huntington that took place December 11. Jeffrey Hammond, speaking on behalf of the state Department of Health, said the facility was cited for Immediate Jeopardy. That means a provider’s non-compliance has caused, or is likely to cause serious injury or harm.
Hammond told the Finger Lakes Times that correction actions were taken and a subsequent inspection was completed. The state DOH continues to monitor Huntington. Finger Lakes Health is appealing the Immediate Jeopardy citation.
Those visits she was granted, in what would become her mother’s final days, were an experience in their own regard. That’s another area that Sandroni says she hopes can be changed in the future. “You could feel the death,” she recalled. “I’m telling you, it was an awful, empty feeling.” Between staffing shortages and residential movement limitations – it was a haunting experience. “It was quiet, just eerie. Really eerie,” Sandroni continued. “I have questions about how residents were being cared for in that regard. How could they keep up? They couldn’t have been. I know my mother wasn’t getting the proper attention she needed. Feeding, liquids, medications, cleaning, and everything – they were so limited on staff and had so many positive residents at that time. I just can’t see it.”
In Sandroni’s estimation, the system broke down – and given the state limitations on visiting, and external interactions with those facilities – a lot was left to chance. “I was very pleased with care throughout my mother’s time at Huntington. The people in her unit were so caring. They were amazing. But it all broke down. Maybe if there was more staff to take care of the residents it might have been different. But even then, what about the patients who weren’t positive, but were not getting enough care?”
Better communication during crisis – even if it’s a public health emergency that lasts months or a year – as well as renewed focus on staffing. There is a bill in the legislature being considered, which would create staffing requirements for facilities like nursing homes and long-term care units. “I don’t expect change overnight, but I do expect everyone involved to take these things seriously because this could happen again.”
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