I tested positive for COVID-19 two weeks ago, but my illness isn’t what has caused me the most pain. What has plagued me the most is that I could have saved my mother’s life from this deadly virus had I not trusted Gov. Andrew Cuomo.
My mother, Ana Martinez, was receiving short-term therapy at Our Lady of Consolation in West Islip, New York. She had been transferred there mid-January from a nearby hospital after receiving treatment following knee-replacement surgery. Doctors suggested she receive additional therapy for four to six weeks, so we agreed without hesitation.
At the beginning of March, I inquired about my mother’s discharge from the facility, which was already a few weeks overdue. I left messages with the case manager, insurance, and nursing unit, but I did not hear back. Finally, I received a phone call with an ultimatum: “If you don’t come to see your mom tonight, you won’t be able to see her until the lockdown is lifted!”
The facility had abruptly shut its doors to visitors in accordance with Cuomo’s order. Shutting the doors seemed like the best way to protect the elderly from a deadly virus, so we trusted him and left her in their care. We rushed to her side, not knowing it would be the last time we’d ever see her alive.
I Was Helpless
The next few weeks were the most frustrating, stressful, and helpless of my life. During that time, my mother developed a cough, severe stomach pain, and diarrhea, but we kept our faith that she was in good hands and worked tirelessly to have her discharged.
When her caseworker contacted me at the end of March, I expressed concern about the possibility of my mother contracting COVID-19. “There is quite a bit of stuff going on at the facility, so there is a risk for her contracting it,” she replied, but said that nonetheless, my mother was safe and would be released in a matter of days.
Three agonizing days and dozens of unanswered phone calls later, it was finally time for her to be discharged. We eagerly awaited our mother’s phone call but got a call from the nurse instead. She casually told us our mother was having respiratory issues but was ready to be discharged. My heart sank, and my mind went to the worst-case scenario: My mother has COVID-19.
I convinced myself that the nursing home must have been testing residents and taking the proper precautions. Surely, if my mother was positive for COVID-19, I would have been notified.
The nurses maintained she was ready to be discharged despite her difficulty breathing, but I refused to let my mother leave worse than she was before. I insisted they take her to the hospital for treatment, and only a few hours later doctors informed me she had been put on a respirator with a collapsed lung. The next day, I got a call from the doctor to say my mother had passed away.
Cuomo Set My Mother up to Die
I was dismissed, given the run-around, and my valid concerns were downplayed. Health-care workers fed me half-truths, assuring me my mother was healthy and safe when all the while she was suffering with COVID-19, gasping for air. My family was not notified until weeks after my mother’s passing that her nursing home had been admitting COVID-19 patients in accordance with a statewide mandate Cuomo had issued on March 25. Cuomo closed the doors on loved ones and opened them instead for the deadly coronavirus.
In my mind, I kept replaying what Cuomo had said: “If you have a vulnerable person, it’s best to keep them in a situation where you have the most control.” At no point, however, were we told to remove our loved ones from nursing homes. At no point did we have control over the situation.
As governor, Cuomo took our control away, failing to enact policies that could have spared our mother’s life, while issuing orders that doomed her. We were not privy to the same information he was, and certainly, his mother was not subjected to the same neglect and maltreatment. In fact, Cuomo said he wouldn’t dare put his mother in a nursing home. He subjected our parents and grandparents to the very danger he admitted was too dangerous for his own mother.
Cuomo had assured New Yorkers the protection of nursing home residents was the state’s top priority, comparing their exposure to setting “fire through dry grass.” He had also acknowledged, “Nursing homes, congregate facilities, senior citizens — they are the feeding ground for this virus.” Nevertheless, he implemented his order, overtaking nursing homes that were already being stretched thin, and knowingly exposing our most vulnerable population to a lethal virus.
Amnesty International criticized mandates like Cuomo’s as infringements of human rights, and described them as “violating their right to health and potentially their right to life.” New York revoked that mandate earlier this summer, and now the direct link to the original mandate is mysteriously broken.
We Must Demand Accountability
Seniors died because they were separated from their loved ones, the only people who could advocate for their safety and well-being. Today, seven months later, seniors are still dying, both from COVID-19 and from extended isolation and neglect. Cuomo, despite promising to do so, has not shown concern for the elderly in care facilities who have taken a backseat to his political sideshow.
It’s estimated that likely more than 10,000 people have died in nursing homes across New York, though official counts don’t reflect that. Politicians and the people of New York called for an independent investigation into the deaths caused by Cuomo’s senseless mandate and got an internal investigation instead that exonerated the governor of any wrongdoing. Cuomo continues to blame President Donald Trump for the country’s sluggish pandemic response but refuses to take responsibility for his own fatal mistakes.
Cuomo shamelessly published a book, “American Crisis: Leadership Lessons from the COVID-19 Pandemic,” applauding his handling of COVID-19 in New York. His celebration is disgraceful and inappropriate given that the coronavirus has killed more New Yorkers than residents of any other state in the country. His book is a slap in the face for thousands of New Yorkers who lost loved ones to the virus, especially when their deaths were caused in part by his negligence.
We initially thought we were alone in our tragic experience, but we found thousands of other families who faced similar circumstances. I didn’t have control as my mother died alone in a hospital bed, nor did I get the chance to say a proper goodbye. My responsibility as a daughter was to ensure she was properly cared for, and more importantly, that she was safe. Cuomo took those rights from me the day he issued his fatal order. The “dry grass” that Cuomo set fire to was my mother, and she was robbed of her life.
We are in control now, however, in our response to Cuomo’s blatant disregard for precious life. We have the power to fight for safety reforms in the face of COVID-19, and we demand accountability of reckless health-care workers and shortsighted government officials.
Vivian Zayas is the co-founder of VoicesForSeniors, a group that has gained national attention advocating for families of seniors impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic, and highlighting the deadly consequences of irresponsible government officials. VoicesForSeniors works tirelessly to advance reforms for respectful, quality care for our nation’s most vulnerable seniors.