Frustrated wife gets long-awaited reunion

Gene Thornton, shown with her cat, visits husband Don Jagger online via video chat on Aug. 11. Ms. Thornton is wearing a shirt with the three infantry divisions she and her husband served in. Submitted photo

MILFORD — For five months during the coronavirus crisis, Gene Thornton’s mission was to be with her 72-year-old military husband in person at the Delaware Veterans Home in Milford.

Wednesday, Aug. 19 was the day she finally visited the man she married in 1976; U.S. Army veteran Donovan F. Jagger. Her husband has dementia, aphasia, is in declining health and at this point basically unresponsive.

The reunion, she says, was heartbreaking.

“Of course, he didn’t relate to me at all. He didn’t open his eyes,” said Ms. Thornton, a retired military veteran. “He appeared to be sleeping for most of the time. Occasionally, he would squint and move his legs. He did not appear to know that anyone was with him — me or anybody else.”

He was placed in hospice in February.

Heartfelt emotions flow when Ms. Thornton thinks back to mid-March when COVID-19 changed the world, her husband was still responsive — and her repeated requests to visit her husband at the veterans’ home were denied for what would be about five months.

Her only contact was via video chats.

She said her Aug. 19 visit was a compassionate care visit, typically to accommodate family of loved ones who are near the end of life stage.

“Who knows if not seeing my husband is the reason, he is rapidly declining,” Ms. Thornton said. “Dementia nursing home residents are dying faster than normal. We know this from the Alzheimer’s Association. We will never know if visits from me could have kept him interested in food, in living, because he cannot speak. The guilt I feel for not visiting him is adding to my deep sadness of his impending death.

“He is already beyond where he can know I saw him. It didn’t do him any good for me to go in there at that point. He was beyond that,” said Ms. Thornton, who turned 70 Aug. 23. “It was just like being on a video chat with him. He sleeps through those as well. He doesn’t relate to the video chat. When I took him into the hospital in November of 2015, he already was not able to understand a television set. He is not able to relate to a video chat.

“My theory is that he could have known me earlier, and known, ‘I had a visitor.’ It is already too late for him to know I was there, know that I cared. As far as he knows I haven’t seen him. He knew me in March, and now he doesn’t,” said Ms. Thornton. “And I feel terrible because, from his point of view, it’s like I don’t love him because I haven’t seen him. And I have no idea if the reason he is not eating is because he hasn’t seen me. I mean, ultimately, that would probably happen anyway. But, if I was seeing him all this time, then at least I wouldn’t be having this guilt; that it is my fault.”

Questions and concerns

Ms. Thornton points her finger of blame at Delaware Veterans Home administration and the state of Delaware. She has questions and concerns about the care her husband and other patients are receiving at the Delaware Veterans Home. She says she speaks for others, and has sought answers but says she has been continuously stonewalled by DVH Administrator Tina Foskey.

“I point-blank told Miss Foskey, “You work for me. You are a state employee. I pay your salary,’” said Ms. Thornton. “I have an interest in knowing what is going on there in general, and my husband is there. I am his medical power of attorney. You cannot deny me my right to do my job as a medical power of attorney.”

Ms. Foskey defended the home’s policies.

“Since the onset of this pandemic, our highest priority has been to protect our residents from exposure to the virus – period,” she said. “The most effective means of doing so has been to limit visitation. While our hearts break for these families, we believe that the visitation policy we implemented is the reason why I haven’t had to make that phone call to a family member to tell them their loved one has died of COVID-19 at the Delaware Veterans Home.”

Ms. Thornton says the Delaware Veterans Home meets Phase 3, which allows visitation with oversight based on the Centers for Medicare & Medicare Services defined guidelines issued in mid-May for reopening of nursing homes.

Phase 3 reopening criteria includes no new onset COVID cases, adequate staffing and supplies of personal protective equipment supplies.

Yet, Ms. Thornton says the facility still operates at Phase 1, in which visitation is “generally prohibited, except for compassionate care situations,” as defined by CMS guidelines.

“They are in Phase 3 but for some reason they tell us they are Phase 1 and that is the puzzlement there,” said Ms. Thornton. “If you read the federal guidance which is being ignored by the state, we should be able to visit. Other state of Delaware nursing homes are allowing visits on their porches or outside or in parking lots …”

In Maryland, Ms. Thornton visited her uncle in a nursing home before he passed.

“My uncle was on hospice. I could see him. I saw him when he still knew me and I held his hand and rubbed his legs and shoulders and kissed him on the top of his through my mask,” said Ms. Thornton. “When he died, I was at peace with that because I had said my goodbyes to him, and he to me. He lived in Chestertown, Maryland. A 45-minute drive, and I could see a loved one and be at peace with his death. He knew that he was loved before he succumbed. And this been denied my husband. And I’m six miles down the road.”

During visitation before coronavirus struck, Ms. Thornton said it was she who found a cancerous growth on her husband’s ear. She also found toenail fungus.

A hospice nurse, Ms. Thornton says, is the one who detected her husband’s broken tooth, which may have been responsible for the sharp drop in her husband’s eating and food intake.

As to those issues, Ms. Foskey said, “We can’t discuss the medical needs of our individual residents, but the level of care they are receiving has not diminished in any way.”

Conflicting information

Ms. Thornton says data she receives from the DVH and state does not match up with that from the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services. There has been conflicting information on the presence of COVID-19 in the DVH, Ms. Thornton said.

“When you combine the fact that we cannot talk to our spouses, we cannot see spouses unless they are literally on their death bed, and that there is no communication coming out except for a weekly well-crafted statement to us which does not have facts that match up with the CMS (Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services) paperwork … it’s very frustrating,” said Ms. Thornton.

“That is why I need to see my husband because I speak for my husband,” she said. “I am his medical power of attorney. I am his eyes and his ears. I am his advocate. And to not be allowed in is one thing. And if I thought it would keep the infection out that would be fine. But the infection did get in regardless. But for me to be kept out and then not respond to my questions is unconscionable. It is totally unacceptable.”

Ms. Foskey said, “We understand that communication with families and loved ones has been challenging, but we have done our best to keep everyone informed in an environment where things have been changing continuously since early March. We also understand that some of the data reporting and tracking figures can seem confusing and, at times, contradictory. This is compounded by reporting lags and delays attributable to CMS.”

Ms. Thornton says her frustration has been ongoing since the pandemic hit in March.

“At first, everybody was OK. We all were willing stay home. Then, in April, we were all scared. Then, by May we kind of started to poke our heads out,” said Ms. Thornton. “By the first of June the governor told me I could go to the beach and I could get my haircut. And I still can’t see my husband. Then July came and I could sit in a restaurant in Delaware, and I still can’t see my husband. Then in August the governor opened up the senior centers. And I still can’t see my husband. And I am told it is because the state of Delaware won’t let it.”

Ms. Thornton said she understands there are several nursing homes that are now allowing outside visitation on the porch of their facilities.

“I don’t believe any are allowing inside visitation, unless it is for what they call compassion care — when people are nearing the end of their lives,” said Ms. Thornton. “Delaware Veterans Home has a big wide porch. There is no reason why I can’t visit my husband while wearing masks with temperature checks.”

Prior to her Aug. 19 visit, Ms. Thornton’s only contact with her husband was via video chats.

“I have an appointment every Tuesday and Thursday at 10 o’clock. They call me with my husband on video screen and me on screen, but my husband does not understand. He can’t say, ‘Honey, I’m fine, I miss you. I had beans for dinner tonight,’” Ms. Thornton said. “There is no ability for me to really communicate with him. I can look at him and I can observe things. I can see if he has gained or lost weight. But that is the sum total of my ability to see my husband, to look at him through a small video screen.”

“We have done everything we can to keep loved ones connected to our residents using technology and, in very rare cases, we have allowed family members to visit when the end of life is near,” said Ms. Foskey. “We will continue to evaluate new options for family contact, including outdoor, physically-distant visits. But our policies cannot change until it is safe to do so.”

Not alone

Ms. Thornton says she is not alone in this frustrating situation.

“I am not the only family member. Family members have called the Veterans Administration and complained,” said Ms. Thornton. “We cannot enter the building. A lot of my questions that I have; they might be able to be answered in five minutes. Some may be important; some may be silly.”

In her husband’s case, Ms. Thornton said he was eating at 100 percent, then suddenly in July dropped to 25 percent.

“I asked them, ‘Why is my husband not eating? What is going on? Does he have COVID. Did you test him?’ No answer,” said Ms. Thornton. “I found out through my hospice nurse that they did test my husband and he was inconclusive. Inconclusive means presumed positive. They retested him.”

There were no other symptoms, Ms. Thornton said. “He didn’t have a fever. That is the only symptom they can monitor,” she said. “He can’t say that he has a headache. He can’t tell them if he can’t smell food. They never told me. I found out through hospice. He retested negative. I found that out from hospice.”

Through Aug. 14, Ms. Foskey said the Delaware Veterans Home has “had one positive test among our residents and no deaths from the virus. Looking at other long-term care facilities in Delaware and across the nation, this is truly outstanding. It’s also directly attributable to the diligence, care and dedication of the entire staff at DVH. They deserve our highest praise and deepest thanks,” Ms. Foskey said.

Ms. Thornton’s visit Aug. 19 was for about an hour. She said it was delayed about a half an hour by an apparent miscommunication about where she was to check in.

She went through the admission protocol: body temperature check, checklist of symptoms and known or possible recent contact with anyone with COVID-19 or suspected COVID.

Ms. Thornton said she was initially denied entrance. Her initial body temperature was above 99 degrees. After resting for several minutes, a subsequent check was normal, and she was allowed to enter.

She wore a mask, gloves and a paper gown. “My husband was more protected against me than he was against any of the people that work with him,” said Ms. Thornton.

Visitation of loved ones suffering from dementia should be paramount, Ms. Thornton said.

She said the Alzheimer’s Association reported on a study “that showed people are dying in nursing homes that have dementia at higher rate than they normally die. I got that study and sent it to the veterans home months ago. They did not acknowledge that I sent it.

“They are not dying of COVID, they are dying to the frustration, dying because they are isolated from their family and they are confused,” said Ms. Thornton. “It could be broken hearts.”

Ms. Thornton said she most likely will not see her husband again in person “until he is quite literally on his death bed. So, just the two visits — TWO,” said Ms. Thornton.

“Nobody wants anyone to be ill. We don’t want to be greedy or selfish and cause others harm. That is not my point. But my point is the visits could happen outside. Visits could happen with me exactly like I was (Aug. 19) with a gown, gloves and facemask. That could have happened all along. That is my point.

“Other nursing homes in Delaware allow outside visitation,” said Ms. Thornton. “This is an arbitrary and capricious application of CMS guidelines. The DVH should be in phase 3, per CMS reopening guidelines issued mid-May. Yet for some reason it is considered phase 1. This is wrong. I’m really sad. I feel really guilty I could not move the needle on this.“

Helpful Coronavirus links

Delaware Division of Health Coronavirus Page
CDC: About the Coronavirus Disease 2019
CDC: What to do if You Are Sick
Johns Hopkins Coronavirus Resource Center
AP News Coronavirus Coverage
Reopening Delaware: Resources for Businesses
Delaware Phase 2 guidance

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