Daughter of veteran who died from coronavirus at Holyoke Soldiers' Home speaks out

At least 56 veteran residents have died at the facility.

April 17, 2020, 6:12 PM

When Susan Kenney got a call from the Holyoke Medical Center on Wednesday morning, she felt hopeful.

It was only about two weeks prior that she didn't know whether or not her father, a veteran resident at the Soldier's Home in Holyoke, Massachusetts, was even alive. She had seen a news report on March 30 that multiple residents had died at the health care facility for veterans and was shocked she hadn't been told.

But on Wednesday, there was reason for optimism. Though her father, 78-year-old Charles Lowell, had tested positive for the novel coronavirus, he had been moved from the home to the medical center for more care.

At 9 that morning, Kenney said, an employee at the medical center told her that Lowell was alert and even ready to eat some breakfast.

But then came another call a little more than an hour after that. Kenney said she was told that when nurses went back to retrieve his breakfast, they found him unresponsive. Her father, who had a Do Not Resuscitate order, had died.

Lowell, an Air Force veteran who served from 1960 to 1965 during the Vietnam War, is among the 56 veteran Soldiers' Home residents who have died. At least 47 of those residents tested positive for COVID-19.

PHOTO: Charles Lowell, 78, served in the Air Force during the Vietnam War from 1960 to 1965.
Charles Lowell, 78, served in the Air Force during the Vietnam War from 1960 to 1965.
Courtesy Susan Kenney

Kenney is now among the families who lost loved ones at the home and have been scrambling to understand exactly what went wrong.

"It could have been prevented. They should have been testing and screening employees, then they should have made absolutely sure when they were dealing with every resident that they were wearing their mask, they were wearing their gloves," Kenney told ABC News in a telephone interview.

"It just shouldn't have happened. I mean, almost half of them are dead now. It's horrible," she said

The Soldiers' Home, a state-run facility, is now the center of two investigations after the growing number of deaths and accusations from the staff that management did not properly protect those inside.

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The U.S. Attorney's Office for the District of Massachusetts and the Department of Justice's Civil Rights Division are conducting a joint investigation, while Gov. Charlie Baker ordered an independent investigation by Attorney Mark W. Pearlstein.

Employees previously told ABC News that the staff was not provided masks while test results were pending for a resident who they said had displayed symptoms of the virus. It was only when that test came back positive that they were given masks, according to the employees, who said they first learned of the results through other employees because management delayed telling the staff.

Though the employees said the roommates of the veteran who tested positive were taken out of that room, they were shuffled around to other rooms, which they said led to overcrowding and possible further spreading because the roommates had been exposed.

PHOTO: An ambulance is parked in front of the Holyoke Soldiers' Home, Tuesday morning, March 31, 2020, in Holyoke, Mass.
An ambulance is parked in front of the Holyoke Soldiers' Home, Tuesday morning, March 31, 2020, in Holyoke, Mass.
Hoang 'Leon' Nguyen/The Republican via AP

Superintendent Bennett Walsh, who was put on paid administrative leave, has not responded to multiple requests for comment from ABC News about the allegations. He did release a statement to MassLive on April 1 defending his actions, saying he provided regular updates to state officials about the number of residents and staff who were tested and their results after a resident tested positive March 21. He also said that all family members were contacted and told that a resident tested positive.

"Our focus then and always was on the veterans and their families," Walsh said in his statement.

The Massachusetts Office of Health and Human Services have also not responded to specific questions, but the office has released information on policies that are now in place at the home, including urging social distancing, tracking personal protective equipment and expedited testing of veteran residents. Additional clinical case management nursing staff and the National Guard have also been placed in the home, according to the office.

"This is a critical health situation for our veterans, and the commonwealth will continue to make all resources available to the leadership of the Holyoke and Chelsea Soldiers’ Homes to contain the spread of the virus," an Office of Health and Human Services spokesperson previously said in a statement.

Kenney said she felt that not all employees appeared to be taking the virus seriously in the early days.

She said that she saw one certified nursing assistant kissing residents in March. Another time, when Kenney was explaining the virus to her father, she said she heard the CNA joke about COVID-19 while standing arm-in-arm with one of the residents.

Reaching the Soldiers' Home also was an issue, she said. On the day that Kenney first learned that residents of the home had died, March 30, she said she had spoken to staff at the home twice earlier that day but was not told about any fatalities.

When she tried to call back later that evening, she said no one answered.

The next day, when she was supposed to FaceTime her dad, she said the facility never called. Kenney said she continued to try to reach the home to no avail.

"Every time I called the Soldiers' Home it was just ringing or I wasn't getting an answer," she said.

By that Wednesday afternoon, she said she heard from a nurse that told her dad was alive, but had been diagnosed with pneumonia. The nurse was not able to tell her if he had been tested for the coronavirus, according to Kenney.

Two days later, that Friday, she said she still had not heard from the facility about her dad's condition and whether he had been tested for COVID-19. By that time, the number of veterans who had died at the home was 21, according to the Massachusetts Office of Health and Human Services.

"I didn't know if my father was dead or alive," Kenney told ABC News.

She said she eventually decided that she would drive down to the home herself. Kenney made sure she would be noticed by staff, so she painted 12 words on the side of her car: "Shame on you, Soldiers' Home. It's been 30 hours with no callback."

Kenney said an employee who she did not recognize came out after she parked in front of the entrance, and was apologetic. From then on, she said, communication improved slightly.

Kenney's father was moved to the Holyoke Medical Center on Monday, where Kenney said she was told he would receive "supplemental care," though she said the nurse at the Soldiers' Home would not elaborate.

When her dad arrived at the hospital, she said she and her mother coordinated with the staff to set a time to visit him. They were provided personal protective equipment and allowed to sit with Lowell for 30 minutes, according to Kelley.

PHOTO: Charles Lowell, 78, with his daughter Susan Kenney (c),his wife Alice Lowell (r) and grandson Christian Lowell.
Charles Lowell, 78, with his daughter Susan Kenney (c),his wife Alice Lowell (r) and grandson Christian Lowell.
Courtesy Susan Kenney

It would be the last time she saw her father in person.

"He held my mother's hand tight the whole time. I told him, you know, people had been asking about him and we're all thinking of him and we love him," Kenney said, choking back tears. "I know he mustered all the strength he had so I would hear it loudly, that he loves us all."

After getting the news her father had died, she said she rushed over to her mother's house to be with her.

"It was just horrible to go over to my mother's and find her in a puddle on the couch, just besides herself," Kenney said.

She said she hopes the investigations into the Soldiers' Home will bring answers about what went wrong and some solace for her family.

She said also hopes her father will be remembered not just as a statistic.

Lowell was stationed in Dayton, Ohio, during his time in the Air Force. He served in the 17th Airborne Missile Maintenance Squadron.

Kenney said her dad was an avid flyer after leaving the military. In the early 1990s, she said he had even rebuilt a small plane with friends.

A few weeks ago, Kenney said, he told her that he could still fly if he wanted to.

"I know he could have. It was a beautiful day to fly [Wednesday]," she said. "Maybe that's why he decided on then."

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ABC News' Arielle Mitropoulos contributed to this report.

Editor's note: This story has been updated with a previous statement from the Soldiers' Home superintendent and the Massachusetts Office of Health and Human Services.