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Grieving Families Say Nursing Homes Kept Mum as COVID Tore Through Buildings

Freddie Freda was living at the Bensonhurst Center for Rehabilitation & Healthcare before passing away from the coronavirus.
Freddie Freda was living at the Bensonhurst Center for Rehabilitation and Healthcare before passing away from the coronavirus.
Photo: Courtesy of Freda Family

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Hospitalized after apparently catching COVID-19 at a Brooklyn nursing home savaged by the coronavirus, Freddie Freda was about to beat the illness.

He would have to spend his 80th birthday, on Saturday, April 11, at Methodist Hospital. But hospital officials called Freda’s daughter Cheryl on April 10 alerting her that their father’s condition had improved so dramatically that he’d be discharged that coming Monday.

“It was almost a miracle,” another daughter, Toni Freda, told THE CITY. “We’re, like, ecstatic. My father’s coming home? Like, this is insane.”

Freda’s family believes he contracted the coronavirus while living at the Bensonhurst Center for Rehabilitation and Healthcare, which has reported 34 deaths to the state Department of Health.

That’s nearly one dead resident for every six living there as of February — the highest share reported to the state by any nursing home in New York City.

Freda’s loved ones say they were never informed that coronavirus was in the building, even as the pathogen tore through the 200-bed facility where he was doing a rehab stint.

With the good news from the hospital, Cheryl and Toni prepared for their father’s homecoming.

They got gloves, masks and gowns to help care for him while he’d be quarantined in his southern Brooklyn apartment. They went grocery shopping to stock up on food. Their sister who lives in Boston was prepared to travel to Brooklyn to help care for their father.

“The next day they call us and tell us that he took a turn for the worse and he wasn’t gonna make it again. That was on his birthday. He died on Easter Sunday,” Toni said.

The Bensonhurst Center on Rehabilitation in Brooklyn.
The Bensonhurst Center for Rehabilitation and Healthcare, in Brooklyn.
Google Maps

Freddie Freda — a “practical joker” who enjoyed but never quite mastered Facebook — was one of the 3,601 nursing home and adult care residents who had died of the virus as of April 25, according to state data.

On April 16, following complaints from relatives of nursing home residents, Gov. Andrew Cuomo signed an executive order that aimed to put families like the Fredas at peace. Homes are now required to notify relatives of residents within 24 hours about any infections or deaths within their facilities or face a $2,000 per violation, per day fine.

Earlier in the month, state Health Commissioner Howard Zucker had urged nursing homes to give such notice to families.

But people with loved ones inside nursing homes say they remain frustrated and frightened — and those who have already lost family members say the governor’s action comes too little, too late.

Fatal Rehab

Freddie Freda went to the hospital in late February for a urinary tract infection. He had Parkinsons and told doctors he had fallen in his apartment previously, but he wasn’t hurt.

Doctors asked if he wanted to go to the rehabilitation center for a few weeks to build his strength, Toni recalled.

Sure, Freddie said.

Then the facility went on lockdown in mid-March, following state orders to limit visitors in an effort to prevent the virus from entering nursing homes. Toni said she and her family had a difficult time getting updates on her father.

Freddie Freda with his family before passing away from the coronavirus.
Freddie Freda with his family before passing away from the coronavirus.
Courtesy of Freda Family

They finally got a FaceTime call from him, with help from a staff member, but only after posting on the facility’s Facebook page and asking for help on a Bay Ridge parent Facebook group.

“He was totally out of it — delusional. He went in there with a totally sane mind,” Toni said. “He was telling us they were under a lockdown and they were being held hostage.”

Toni and her sister called the facility daily to ask if there were suspected COVID cases at the Bensonhurst home.

“Nothing, nothing, nothing. They kept telling us nothing,” she said.

That is, until April 2nd.

That’s when the center called to say that Freddie was being rushed by ambulance to Methodist Hospital because he had symptoms of the coronavirus — a fever and labored breathing. He had also lost weight.

“That was the first time we ever heard anything about the coronavirus there,” Toni said.

Few FaceTime Calls

Freddie Freda is not counted among the 34 COVID fatalities at the Bensonhurst Center for Rehabilitation and Health Care because he died at a hospital, not on the premises of the center.

Neither is Frances, who died at 92 after what was supposed to be a three-week stay at the center, according to her daughter Vivian, who asked that their last names not be used.

Frances had suffered a stroke in late February that left the left side of her body “a little weak,” so at the suggestion of her doctors at Maimonides Medical Center, her family placed her at the nursing home, where she could get physical therapy.

Frances celebrated a birthday with her husband of nearly 70 years before dying from the coronavirus at 92.
Frances with her husband of nearly 70 years before dying from the coronavirus at 92.
Courtesy of Frances' Family

Six weeks after arriving at the nursing home on February 26, “this little Italian lady,” described as a ”bulldog” by her daughter, died after contracting the coronavirus at the facility.

“I’m disgusted. I’m just, like, disgusted with how they treated my mom,” said Vivan.

Until the nursing home banned visitors in mid-March, Frances’ 93-year old husband would spend every day at the facility making sure his partner of nearly 70 years was being cared for — bringing homemade food for his wife, who was a picky eater, and making sure she was dressed.

After the nursing home went on lockdown, Frances’ family had difficulty getting updates on her condition, Vivian said. The family was promised FaceTime calls, but they seldom occurred.

No-Virus Assurance

Their first indication that COVID-19 may have infiltrated the nursing home came by accident nearly four weeks ago. An employee who answered Vivian’s call let it slip that some staff were on a mandatory two-week quarantine.

But the Bensonhurst Center employee assured her that no one was sick with the virus.

After failing to get in touch with nursing home staff on other occasions, Vivian called the nurse’s station again the morning of April 6 and was told that her mother’s breathing was “not as strong as it was.”

“‘You should have called me,’” Vivian recalled. “I said, ‘I want her in the hospital.’”

The Bensonhurst Center sent Frances to the emergency room at Maimonides, where her husband and family were finally able to see her. She had a five-inch bed sore along her back, according to Frances’ family.

A doctor confirmed that she had the virus and put Frances on oxygen, according to Vivian.

“She looked like she recognized us. She looked like she was happy. Even the doctor said, ‘I see a change in her when you guys came here,’” said Vivian.

Still, Vivian had a sinking feeling. “When they brought her in, she wasn’t the same. We felt like she was going to pass now,” she said.

“We went to see her on Good Friday, April 10th, and that was it. They called us to come say goodbye ’cause they said her breathing was disintegrating faster now. So we went, and within minutes we told them to take her off the monitor because it wasn’t really doing anything to her. She passed away,” Vivian said.

This past week, some relatives of residents at the Bensonhurst Center for Rehabilitation and Healthcare began receiving letters dated April 6 alerting families that a patient who was admitted to the center tested positive for COVID-19 earlier this month.

The Bensonhurst Center for Rehabilitation & Healthcare sent a letter to residents and family about a person living at the home testing positive for COVID-19.
The Bensonhurst Center for Rehabilitation and Healthcare sent a letter to residents and family about a person living at the home testing positive for COVID-19.
Obtained by THE CITY

But those warnings never came or came too late, Freddie and Frances’ families said.

The letter one relative received was stamped on April 7 and processed by the U.S. Postal Service on April 14. They didn’t get it until last week.

Efraim Acker, the administrator at the center, said in an email that all families “were indeed notified by general correspondence and individually” that there were cases of COVID-19 at the facility.

“While you did not provide us with any resident names and Federal Law prevents us from commenting on care provided to specific residents, Bensonhurst Center for Rehabilitation and Healthcare has historically been rated one of the top skilled nursing facilities in New York both overall and for quality of care,” he said in response to THE CITY’s questions.

Reunited for Brief Moments

In Harlem, Charles Wilson, 60, says he still hasn’t heard a thing from Northern Manhattan Rehab and Nursing Center, even nearly two weeks after his wife, Florine, died after living there for a dozen years.

His very thin silver lining: At a time when family members are usually forbidden to be with hospitalized loved ones, Charles was able to see Florine, his wife of four decades, during her final days of life. He works as a cleaner in Mount Sinai Hospital’s palliative care unit and arranged to have her transferred there after she fell ill in late March.

Florine and Charles Wilson, before Florine fell ill from the coronavirus.
Florine and Charles Wilson, before Florine fell ill from the coronavirus.
Courtesy of Charles Wilson

Once she was admitted, he extended his usual Monday-to-Friday work schedule to seven days a week so he could visit his wife — usually at the beginning and end of each shift, about 10 minutes at a time.

“I wouldn’t touch her,” Wilson explained. “But I would go in, talk to her, put the kids on FaceTime. Each time, I would pray for her.”

Their time together came after weeks of separation while she grew sicker in the nursing home.

Northern Manhattan shut its doors to visitors March 16 — the day federal nursing home regulators required guests to be excluded to reduce the risk of infection. For two weeks after that, said Wilson, communication with the nursing home was inconsistent at best.

Florine moved into the nursing home in 2008, a few years after retiring from the New York Department of State, where she worked as a license inspector.

Northern Manhattan Nursing and Rehab Center did not respond to requests for comment. As of April 25, Northern Manhattan Rehab and Nursing Center has reported nine COVID deaths to the state.

Wilson contends he often had to call the front desk multiple times to be transferred to a line that connected to Florine’s room, which she shared with another resident. Sometimes, he would reach medical staff.

“I would call and the nurses would say, ‘Oh, she’s eating fine, yeah, she’s drinking,” he recalled.

At no point did the home tell him that she had or was suspected to have COVID-19, nor that anyone else in the facility was infected.

“How did she end up in the hospital, then? It doesn’t make any sense.”

Final Words

Finally, the home called Wilson on March 29. Florine had stopped eating and drinking. A doctor at the facility determined she needed to be hospitalized, a nurse told Wilson. Please send her to Mount Sinai, Wilson urged.

The physician at the Mount Sinai ER found she had an advanced urinary tract infection, was “extremely dehydrated” and had COVID-19.

Wilson said his wife had “her eyes in over her head” when she was admitted to the emergency room that day. She slipped into a coma 14 hours later.

Florine passed away on April 15. She is survived by her husband, her six children, one of whom she shared with Charles, and six grandchildren. She was 74 years old.

He remembers that day she was admitted to the hospital vividly, he says, because that’s the last time he heard his wife speak.

“I asked if she could hear me, and she said yes,” Wilson recalled. “And then I asked, ‘Who am I?’ and she said, ‘My husband. Charles Wilson.’”

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