The siblings of a Khmer-speaking Cambodian refugee whose body went undiscovered for five days after she died of a heart attack last month while walking down the stairs following a visit to Montefiore’s Family Health Center in The Bronx grieved for their sister outside the facility on Wednesday.

“I called every day,” after  57-year-old Sary Mao didn’t return from her visit, her sister, 59-year-old Sophath Mao, told THE CITY on Wednesday. 

Sophath Mao Credit: Ben Fractenberg/THE CITY

“I’m here today to request a response. I’ve come here to seek justice for her,” Sophath said in Khmer through a translator at the gathering outside of the Fordham center organized by Mekong NYC, a Northwest Bronx group advocating for Southeast Asians. They were joined by about 40 family members, Montefiore workers, and members of the Northwest Bronx Community Clergy and Coalition and the New York State Nurses Association. 

“She’s the only sister I have. My life has changed since she passed. I’m devastated.” 

‘Monty Has Let Us Down’

Sary Mao was a longtime patient at the Family Health Center who’d advocated against Montefiore’s decision to merge it with other clinics as a cost-saving measure for the financially beleaguered health-care giant, according to Politico New York, which first reported her death.

The hospital, Sophath Mao said at the rally, had failed “to provide the honest explanations” even as it sent a letter of apology to the family.

The door to the stairwell where Sary Mao was eventually found had been marked “emergency exit” but only in English, even though many of the clinic’s patients speak little or no English. 

“Monty is a clinic that we all call a second home in which we have put our faith, but Monty has let us down,” she said, referring by nickname to the health care provider that’s one of the Bronx’s biggest employers. 

“And the result of disinvestment took the life of an innocent human being. How can we continue to have faith in [the] Monty healthcare facility?” 

Asked for comment, Montefiore Medical Group sent a letter executive director Andrew Racine had previously shared with Politico, citing federal privacy laws and decency to explain why it would not comment on Sary Mao’s death. The health care provider also noted that the family health center rents space in a building that’s independently owned and operated.  

Chase Enterprise, which lists the building among its holding on its website, did not immediately return a request for comment.

By the time Sary Mao’s body was discovered, it was “utterly decomposed to a point where she’s unrecognizable,” a relative told Bronx News 12, while also noting that the Beacon of Hope group home in Bathgate where Mao lived had not performed a welfare check or told her family that she was missing.  

Catholic Charities Community Services, which operates the Beacon of Hope, did not respond to a request for comment from THE CITY. “We were terribly sorry to hear about the passing of Ms. Mao and extend our condolences to her family and friends,” a spokesperson there wrote to Bronx News 12 earlier this week

“It is not appropriate for us to comment on matters of client care.”

‘Something You Can Eat in the Afterlife’

After the rally, supporters honored Mao in a traditional Buddhist ceremony called Bansokol. They lit LED candles and placed them on a table decorated with a pineapple, nine mandarins, an orange, flowers, a small bottle of water, incense and photos of Mao. 

Credit: Ben Fractenberg/THE CITY

“Offering of fresh fruits and drinks often is just one of those things to let them know ‘here’s something you can eat in the afterlife,’” Mekong NYC campaign director Khamarin Nhann told THE CITY. 

The ritual is particularly meaningful for Cambodians, many of whom made it to The Bronx following the genocide in their homeland in which the Khmer Rouge regime killed an estimated 1.7 million people, a quarter of the country’s population, between 1975 and 1979. 

“A lot of the folks that were massacred in the genocide, they had a lot of unmarked graves and didn’t actually have a ritual or a funeral or a ceremony,” said Nhann. The ceremony, he continued, is intended to help “make sure that they make it to the next life.”