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Workers at a 250-bed state-run veterans nursing home in Queens are circulating a list naming nearly 50 residents who died during the coronavirus crisis — an act of defiance and remembrance ahead of Memorial Day.
The list identifies 48 veterans or spouses of veterans who passed away between March 27 and April 29 at the New York State Veterans Home in St. Albans, one of five veterans nursing homes operated directly by the state Department of Health.
Staff members, who served many of the fallen veterans for years, have been critical of facility administrators for their handling of the outbreak — and accuse them of failing to publicly account for the full scope of fatalities.
“In memory of our beloved veterans,” reads the one-page list. “These veterans deserve justice!!”
‘A Tough Old Bird’
Their service to the country ran the gamut, from World War II to the Vietnam War, and encompassing four of the five branches of the U.S. military.
At least one spouse of a veteran died at the nursing home last month. In civilian life, the men and women worked as municipal employees, construction workers and ministers, among other trades.
They included Bishop Jerome Norman, a former Army private who established a Queens ministry and would walk around the nursing home with a Bible so he could pray for his fellow residents. He died April 12 at the age of 94.
Edwin Morales, whose wife described him as a “tough old bird,” loved living with his fellow veterans at the nursing home and seeing the American flag flying outside the facility’s windows. The Bronx-born Marine veteran of the Vietnam War died on April 16 at age 74.
And there was Otis Lee Smart, who turned down a college basketball scholarship to join the Army during the Vietnam War — and later worked for the City of New York for 33 years. He was 78 when he died on April 10.
The list of deceased veterans and family members includes a note that it is not comprehensive.
A review by THE CITY, Columbia Journalism Investigations and the Brown Institute for Media Innovation confirmed 25 of the fatalities, but also found that the list excludes at least one resident known to have died in April.
The document also doesn’t include deaths that have continued into May. Public notices on the veterans home’s website have reported four such deaths — which would push the total above 50.
It’s unclear how many of the veterans died of confirmed or presumed COVID-19. The state Health Department says 35 residents there had died of coronavirus-related causes through May 22.
But that figure doesn’t include residents who died at hospitals — which health officials said are reported solely in the overall tally of state COVID deaths, in part to avoid double-counting.
Nursing Homes Hard Hit
New York has lost more than 5,000 residents of nursing homes to the coronavirus — more than any other state. But state officials have struggled to pull together an accurate assessment of the full count. More than 3,000 of those deaths came in New York City.
Multiple workers at the St. Albans veterans home said medical care has been compromised throughout the crisis because many employees have been calling out sick.
And they contend that administrators at the home should have followed Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s mantra suggesting nursing homes that couldn’t properly care for coronavirus patients could have simply said so.
“If you’re unable to take care of these residents that have it, and you don’t have the staff, then you should let them go [elsewhere] and let the state know you can’t do it,” said one worker.
“What [the facility administrator] is afraid of is if we let these people go, they’ll shut us down,” the employee added. “I’d rather give up my job than hold onto people we can’t handle and let them die.”
State Health Department officials said they’ve been aggressively filling open positions at the nursing home.
A spokesperson for the agency ticked off a host of steps taken to protect nursing home residents — including prohibiting visitors as of mid-March, ordering daily temperature checks of staff, and providing 13 million pieces of protective equipment — across the state.
“As administrator of this facility, we’ve gone a step further to mandate these measures at St. Albans,” said the spokesperson, Gary Holmes. “In addition to a DOH-led survey on April 29th, we’ve also partnered with an outside entity for an objective review of all practices,” he added. “The residents of St. Albans deserve nothing less.”
Questions about the unidentified “outside entity” didn’t immediately get a response.
Families’ Mixed Emotions
Family members interviewed by THE CITY voiced a range of feedback when asked about the care of their loved ones — from satisfaction with treatment to frustration with the nursing home to anger at government officials.
Those with concerns said finding out anything about the status of their loved ones after visitors were barred had been difficult.
Claudia Price, Norman’s daughter, said the nursing home her mother lives in was much quicker and more restrictive in quarantining all of its residents, while the St. Albans site allowed group dining to continue for considerably longer.
“Their belief in letting the veterans have the liberty and freedom — they should have tightened up on that from the beginning,” said Price, who lives in South Carolina.
Other family members expressed similar sentiments, but said they understood that the pandemic dealt the nursing home a difficult hand.
“You can’t really be angry at all the people in the nursing home because when the coronavirus outbreak happened, it was like ‘Boom!’ Everything was chaotic, and because New York is so crowded, it spread like wildfire,” said Kalynzza Richey, whose father, Alexander Richey, died April 16.
“I think you need to go higher up,” Richey added. “The government, from the top down, could’ve handled procedures a bit better.”
Some family members also shared biographical information about their loved ones, telling some of the stories behind the names on the list.
A Compassionate Pastor
Bishop Jerome Norman had a “million-dollar smile.”
Born in Arkansas and raised in Brooklyn, he served in the Army for nearly two years toward the end of World War II, his family said.
He dedicated his life to his ministry in Queens — the Full Gospel Mission Church of God in Christ — which he founded in 1957. He served as pastor there for decades while traveling around the world to expand the church’s reach.
“He’d walk around with his Bible — everyone knew who he was,” said one of his three daughters, Claudia Price, 68, of South Carolina. “He had a million-dollar smile, he was compassionate, and loved and cared about people.”
Norman was 94 when he died on Easter Sunday.
Lived Up to His Name
Agent Orange, a harmful herbicide used as a defoliant in the Vietnam War, contributed to Alexander Richey’s ailments.
An Air Force veteran from Glen Cove, L.I., Richey was exposed to the chemical when he served as an aircraft mechanic in Vietnam, according to his daughter, Kalynzza Richey, of Maryville, Tenn.
The underlying health issues, she said, hindered his ability to fight the COVID-19 virus.
“He was exposed when they fixed the aircraft,” said Richey, 40. “I just remember when I was younger thinking it was weird that he had no toenails.”
After returning stateside, Alexander Richey worked for years at Con Ed and then the New York City Transit Authority, where he “fixed the axles on trains and such,” his daughter recalled.
He was 68 when he died at Jamaica Hospital Medical Center in Queens.
“You know, I remember looking up the meaning of his name, Alexander, in one of those baby-name books,” Kalynzza Richey said. “In Greek terminology, it means something like ‘brave warrior.’ He lived up to his name.”
‘My Partner in Life’
Long before he became a resident of the New York State Veterans Home, Raul Cambian often got medical treatment from his wife, Carmen.
The Navy veteran had worked in construction for years, installing glass windows in city skyscrapers. Carmen Cambian recalled her husband — a funny man with an attitude — coming home from work full of cuts and wounds.
“He didn’t want to go to the hospital, so when he came home I became ‘Nurse,’” she said.
The couple was married for 50 years, first living in Williamsburg’s Lindsay Park Co-Op until Cambian moved to St. Albans. They had two sons.
Cambian died April 10 at the age of 70, his family said.
“He was my lover, my confidant, my partner in life,” Carmen Cambian said. “He was the best thing that ever happened to me.”
‘He Loved New York’
Edwin Morales was a “tough old bird, a former Marine” who was born in The Bronx in 1945 and raised in the borough’s old Woodycrest children’s home.
He then enlisted in the Marine Corps and served in the Vietnam War, before working as a computer associate for the city’s Department of Finance, according to Alice Morales, his wife of 29 years.
“He loved his country, he loved New York, he loved being a city employee,” said Morales, 64, of Bellerose. “He was happy to be at the home because he was with all the other veterans.”
She said that Morales particularly enjoyed the views from the nursing home’s windows — where he could see the American flag waving in the wind every day.
He was buried at Long Island National Cemetery on April 20, four days after he passed away.
Gave Up Hoops for Army
After growing up a sports fanatic, Otis Lee Smart was offered a scholarship to play basketball at Iona College in New Rochelle.
Instead, he opted to join the U.S. Army and wound up getting grazed by a bullet in Vietnam, according to the youngest of his three children, Troy Smart.
Born in South Carolina and raised in Harlem, Otis Lee Smart returned to the city and got work as a peace officer patrolling homeless shelters and welfare benefits offices.
His 33-year career as a municipal employee included a stint as a welfare investigator, according to his son.
“He actually got hurt on the job because they got — somebody was going crazy in there one day and he had to, like, help wrestle them down, and his back got hurt,” said Troy Smart, who works in material management at Jamaica Hospital Medical Center. “He was out of work for like a month, a month and a half.”
Otis Lee Smart moved into St. Albans several years ago to manage diabetes and dialysis treatments. He died April 10 from COVID-19, after his health took a sudden turn for the worse, his son said.
A week earlier, Troy Smart had spoken to his father, who said the nursing home staff had been handing out masks, but that “everything’s fine, everything’s good here.”
Otis Lee Smart soon started running a fever and showing other coronavirus-related symptoms.
“In a week, it turned from everything was fine to the worst possible outcome,” Troy Smart said.
Here are the names of New York State Veterans Home residents whose deaths we’ve independently confirmed, variously via funeral home notices, public records, the city medical examiner’s office, and friends and family members of the deceased:
Arthur Adams; Lester Anthony; Willie Barnes; Charles H. Beatty; Robert Brogan; Raul Cambian; Donald H. Christensen; Henry Edward Daniels; Vincent Falzetta; Willie Godwin; Leroy Johnson; Victor Johnson; William J. Johnson; Stephen W. Kann; James Look; Edwin Morales; Bishop Jerome Norman, Joyce Elaine Parker; Cono J. Ragone; Alexander Richey; Corinne Rogatnick; Otis Lee Smart; John Steiner; Scott Walter and Samuel Williams.
Beatriz Muylaert, Veronica Penney and Rebekah Ward are reporting fellows for Columbia Journalism Investigations, an investigative reporting unit at the Columbia Journalism School. Funding for CJI is provided by the school’s Investigative Reporting Resource.
The work of Arusha Kelkar and Anjali Tsui is funded as part of Columbia Journalism School’s Brown Institute for Media Innovation.
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