Families of Holyoke Soldiers' Home veterans push for board seat months after virus outbreak
By LISA KASHINSKY | Boston Herald | Published: January 10, 2021
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(Tribune News Service) — Cheryl Turgeon just wants the families of the Holyoke Soldiers' Home veterans to have their voices heard.
Turgeon — whose father, Dennis Thresher, a Korean War veteran, was a resident at the home — has spent months calling for change and transparency at the facility that's seen nearly 80 residents die from COVID-19.
Her father, who experienced COVID-like symptoms when the virus first swept through the facility last spring, died Saturday. He was 90.
"These veterans' spirits will live on in the families," Turgeon told the Herald, adding that her father's passing has steeled her resolved to "make it my mission to bring better care and oversight to the ones who deserve it the most."
Ten months after the coronavirus first infiltrated the Holyoke Soldiers' Home, leadership has changed, vaccines are being administered and two of the facility's former top officials are facing criminal neglect charges.
But the virus continues its stubborn grip on those who served. Four veterans are currently positive for the virus, according to a weekly state report issued Tuesday. A veteran who had been living in a dedicated skilled nursing unit at Holyoke Medical Center since April died in December, becoming the 77th resident of the Holyoke Soldiers' Home to die since March.
Family members, several of whom serve as health care proxies for their loved ones, say communication with both the home and the state remains difficult.
They say restrictions on visitation — which has been outright suspended since Nov. 20 under the facility's COVID-19 safety protocols — are demoralizing veterans despite families' best efforts.
Erin Schadel — whose 82-year-old father, Francis "Skip" Hennessy, lives at the home — built a "veteran visit box" out of wood and plexiglass dividers that she says would allow veterans and their relatives to visit safely. She detailed her prototype in an email to the state this week, noting that volunteers are ready to help build the roughly $750 booths. She's yet to hear back.
"I'm just desperate to see my father," Schadel said. "I'm a health care proxy, and we don't know firsthand knowledge of what his condition is, so how can we make decisions?"
Family members are also frustrated that their calls for a seat on the facility's board of trustees appear to be going unanswered, even as Gov. Charlie Baker installed a new chairman this week.
"They should have a family member on the board," Roberta Twining, whose husband, Timothy, resides at the home, said.
Baker said in response to a Herald reporter's question on Friday that he's filled all of the available board seats "based on the current rules associated with the skill sets and the geography that are associated with who should be on the board."
But he said he'd support one for families if the Legislature, which currently has a special commission investigating the deadly outbreak, recommends it when it files its report in March.
"If that were to happen, obviously that's something we would support," Baker said.
One of the co-chairs of the special commission, state Rep. Linda Dean Campbell, D- Methuen, said increasing family involvement at the soldiers' home is being actively discussed and will come up in hearings expected to relaunch later this month.
"The request for greater family input on policy was heard so loud and clear when we conducted the hearings out at Holyoke" in the fall, Campbell said. "I think that's a very reasonable request."