As darkness descends on her home in Chunky, Mississippi, Marcy Mills reflects on her father’s final days.
“It broke my heart to know he had been in that room, lying there in silence, alone for around 10 days and nights. Can you even begin to imagine what mental torture that must have been?”
Marcy’s 81-year-old father, Albert Bender Jr., a crash firefighter in the Navy, was one of 13 residents at the Mississippi State Veterans home in Kosciusko, Mississippi, to die after testing positive for COVID-19, the deadly disease caused by a novel coronavirus. He died June 8 from complications with COVID-19 and lung cancer.
The Kosciusko facility is one of four state veterans’ nursing homes, each with 150 residents. According to the Mississippi Department of Health, the home has faced multiple complaint investigations but each concluded with “no deficiencies.” The reports do not detail what the complaints were about.
“We are purely funded by the federal V.A. (Veterans Affairs) and by families of residents,” said Stacey Pickering, executive director of the State Veterans’ Affairs Board. Of the four homes, only one had residents who tested positive for COVID-19: Kosciusko.
Kim Amis of Decatur, Marcy’s sister, notes that “the nursing home was great to my dad, but once the pandemic broke out, it was all downhill.”
Testing and Tracing at Mississippi State Veterans Home in Kosciusko
On April 29, the home told families that one of its staff members had tested positive. Two days later, a resident tested positive.
“We traced it back to either a nurse or one of our residents, then it spread rapidly,” Pickering told MCIR.
On May 1, the home tested all staff and residents. Six days later, families learned that 19 residents and 12 staff members had tested positive for the virus. The decision was made to send Bender to the G.V. “Sonny” Montgomery Veterans Affairs Medical Center in Jackson, but he refused to leave the home.
Kim was livid. “Ever since his diagnosis, he has not been in the right state of mind, as he was taking Robitussin with codeine, and you’re letting him make a decision to live or die, and we’re not getting notified?”
Pickering says every resident at the home has a responsible party.
“Instead of people calling and checking on a resident, there is a responsible party to call,” he said. “We try to work with our families. I don’t know of any other nursing home system that has been as transparent as we have.”
Pickering went on to state that one of the ways the home communicates with families is by implementing iPads so that family members can connect with residents.
Kim said she told the nurses to take her father to the VA Medical Center in Jackson but was told the family would have to wait to hear back from the doctors to make a decision.
Later, she received a call from her sister saying their father was at the VA hospital in Jackson. Kim immediately called the home to ask why she was not told directly that her dad had been transported to the VA, and she said the nurse stated that “maybe I misdialed.”
While at the medical center, Kim was told her father had lung cancer and would eventually die. On May 18, orders were made to send Albert back to the nursing home.
The following day, at 1:30 a.m., Kim said the VA called Melissa Bayles, Kim’s sister, and told her that it was preparing to move their father back to the Kosciusko veterans home immediately.
Questioning why he was being moved at 1:30 in the morning, Kim said she was told several weeks later that there was only one ambulance in the state that would transport a COVID-19 patient from the medical center to the nursing home.
Pickering said that was true at the time, but since then, the Veterans Affairs Board has worked through that problem.
Communication Proves Major Challenge
One night stands out clearly in Kim’s mind: Her father called her on May 25, pleading, “I need somebody. I am a veteran, and I have served in the military. No veteran should be treated like this.”
She heard the despair in his voice. “Just because these men and women are in their 70s, 80s and 90s,” she said, “doesn’t mean that they don’t deserve the same basic care like anyone else.”
For many Mississippians with loved ones at the State Veterans Home in Kosciusko, the biggest challenge they faced was communication.
The daughter of another resident who had served in the Vietnam and Korean wars and died after testing positive for COVID-19, declared “that the communication was horrible.”
One early morning, she received a call from a nurse that her dad was “actively dying,” she said. “I have been a nurse for 45 years, and I have never heard something like that before.”
Concerns About Hydroxychloroquine
Throughout the final days of her father’s life, Kim received unsettling phone calls from the State Veterans Home including one in the early days of his diagnosis where a nurse told her that the staff was giving her father hydroxychloroquine, a drug that the Food and Drug Administration has cautioned against using for COVID-19 outside a hospital due to “risk of heart rhythm problems.”
Other state-run veterans’ homes have also used the controversial drug, most notably a 292-bed facility near Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, where at least 42 residents have died of COVID-19.
When she received no response from the veterans home about her concerns, Kim emailed U.S. Rep. Michael Guest on May 29. On June 3, she contacted a member of the Veterans Affairs board and then got a call from Pickering the following day.
According to Kim, Pickering told her he would review her concerns. She did not receive a response until three weeks later when she said he called and told her the home now had 45 residents and 34 staff members who had tested positive. Kim was stunned, wondering why families had failed to be notified.
Pickering did not confirm or deny the conversation.
Desperate to see her father one last time before he died, Marcy said she called the home 13 times with no response. She then emailed Gov. Tate Reeves:
“Whether it is through a window or something else, I’m begging you, please fix this,” she wrote. “I only have now, I don’t know how long he has. He is alone and dying.”
Reeves responded, “I will send this over to the Health Department to assist. Please [let] me know if somebody doesn’t contact you about this matter.”
Marcy received a call from the home the next day and planned to see her father on May 22.
One Last Visit With Father
As spring made way for summer, Marcy drove to Kosciusko to see her father one last time. For much of his life, Albert had struggled with alcohol, and his relationship with his children and grandchildren had been nonexistent.
But after moving into the State Veterans Home a few years earlier, he became a changed man, and those relationships had begun to heal.
Desperate to tell him that she loved him one last time, Marcy entered the home and signed a form that told her the risk of seeing her dad.
She rounded a corner and saw his room. What she saw was heartbreaking.
In the empty room, he lay in silent isolation, as the virus and cancer slowly stole his life. There was no TV or radio to keep him company.
Pickering said staff at the State Veterans Homes “try our best to not leave residents confined to their room.”
“You can imagine … 80- to 90-year-olds already with health problems, and you’re going to confine them to a room? Depression sets in very quickly,” Pickering said, “and it is very problematic.”
Marcy brought her father flowers, which he smelled but couldn’t see.
She placed a St. Christopher medallion around his neck. He clutched the patron saint of protection, and tears streamed down his face.
“He told me all he had been able to do is lie there and think about all the bad decisions he had made in his lifetime,” she said, “how he could’ve been a better husband, father, grandfather.”
In the days that followed, she and her sisters repeatedly tried to reach him on his cell phone, but there was no answer. “I just wanted him to have hope, to not give up,” she recalled. “To know he wasn’t alone.”
Instead, he died alone, his voice his only company.
The Poverty & the Pandemic is a continuing series from the Mississippi Center for Investigative Reporting and the Pulitzer Center that captures the stories of people and places hit hardest by the nation’s worst pandemic in a century.
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