Daughter of Holyoke Soldiers' Home veteran who survived COVID-19 saddened by first family visit
By STEPHANIE BARRY | The Republican | Published: June 17, 2020
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HOLYOKE, Mass. (Tribune News Service) — After five months of visiting with her father from two stories away in the parking lot of the Soldiers’ Home in Holyoke, amid a pandemic that decimated its patient population, Susan Regensburger was looking forward to a hug.
She didn’t get it. Nor did her father, John J. MacKay, who not only survived the Burma Theater during World War II and a COVID-19 diagnosis, but also turned 100 in May.
“He looked chilly. And he looked lonesome,” said Regensburger, a retired teacher from Westfield. “I can tell he’s regressed.”
On Tuesday she was among the first family members allowed to visit the long-term care facility since the pandemic disastrously struck its population beginning in March. The visits were conducted outdoors and everyone had to keep their distance to guard against potential new coronavirus infections.
Over the past few months, Regensburger said visits with her dad consisted of posting up in the parking lot and shouting questions at MacKay through his open window two flights up.
“It was like: ‘How was your day?’ and he’d have to close the window when it got breezy and too cold,” she said.
Seventy-six residents of the facility have died from COVID-19, drawing an unwanted national spotlight as one of the deadliest hot spots for elder care in the nation. The last coronavirus-related death of a Holyoke Soldier’s Home resident was reported May 26. A new round of testing last week showed eight of 137 residents infected. Two residents who recovered from COVID-19 have since died of other causes, according to state data.
The outbreak has upended the Soldiers’ Home administration — most notably prompting the suspension of superintendent Bennett Walsh.
Walsh, for his part, has said state officials were slow to react when he sounded an alarm. State and federal agencies have launched parallel investigations, and advocates of the facility have sparked an aggressive plan for a renovation and new staffing structure.
On Tuesday, Regensburger and her husband saw her father in person in a shady pavilion on the Cherry Street campus under the watchful eye of a nursing assistant. They were on opposite sides of a table about 7 feet long, she said.
“This was the best we could do,” she joked of a photo that shows her, arms outstretched, several feet away from MacKay.
The state Department of Health and Human Services, which oversees the state’s two Soldiers’ Homes, green-lighted tightly controlled family visits for the first time today in Holyoke and on Monday in Chelsea. Generally, each veteran is allowed one family visit per week. Only two family members are permitted at once.
Regensburger, one of four siblings, lamented about Father’s Day, just days away on June 21.
“I feel like all of this is stealing my father’s life,” she said. “Who knows how long any of us is going to be on this Earth?”