Families of two Korean War veterans say a Long Island nursing home neglected basic care and left their elderly loved ones to suffer gruesome deaths last year.
In one case, a former soldier died after his bedsores grew so large and deep, a human hand could fit inside some of the gaping holes in his skin. Another elderly veteran with dementia died after nursing staff lost sight of him for nearly an hour and he accidentally hanged himself while trying to wiggle out of a wheelchair restraint.
Thomas Bischoff lived at the Suffolk Center for Rehabilitation and Nursing for several years. By the time of his death at age 74 on March 18, 2013, pressure ulcers, better known as bedsores, covered much of his backside.
Medical records from Brookhaven Memorial Medical Center say Bischoff went into cardiac arrest after a septic infection attacked his respiratory system. The records also say his bedsores helped cause that septic infection.
“There’s no doubt in my mind that he was neglected,” his granddaughter, Alicia Zarzana, told the I-Team.
Richard Mollot, director of the Long Term Care Community Coalition, said such gaping sores are almost always a sign of nursing home neglect.
“When we see that the pressure sores are very serious – very large, there is a number of them, etcetera – that should ring everyone’s alarm that something is wrong here,” Mollot said.
About four months after Bischoff died, another Korean War veteran, Raymond Curiale, accidentally hanged himself. Curiale’s care plan after he was admitted in March 2013 required staff to monitor him every 15 minutes.
But according to a Department of Health inspection report, on July 15, he was found slumped against his wheelchair “with the seat belt around his neck and without respirations or pulse.” The inspector went on to write that Curiale “was not supervised after 1:15pm until he was found at 2:12pm.” It was during that 57-minute time window that he managed to choke himself.
“My father was off the radar of the home and he’s supposed to be on 15-minute checks,” said John Curiale. “And to die like a dog that jumped over a fence with a leash around his neck was just totally, totally unacceptable.”
Representatives of the Suffolk Center for Rehabilitation and Nursing declined to answer specific questions about the fatalities or safety inside the home.
The center said in a statement that it provides "quality care" for 120 short- and long-term residents.
"Our staff takes great pride in their work," the center said. "We honor the responsibility we have to our residents and their families with skilled and compassionate attention 24 hours a day, 7 days a week."
Last May, another questionable death occurred inside the Suffolk Center when a 56-year-old rehab patient died after overdosing three times on narcotic painkillers. An inspection report said the facility “failed to adequately monitor and supervise residents with known drug-seeking behaviors.”
The report also said “staff suspected illegal narcotic exchange within the facility but no investigations, assessments or changes to the resident’s plan of care were made.”
In recent years, New York state has steadily relaxed the number of penalties levied against long-term care facilities.
According to data compiled by the Long Term Care Community Coalition, the Health Department issued 142 enforcement actions against nursing homes in 2007. In 2011, the number was down to 81. Last year there were 27 enforcement actions against New York nursing homes totaling just over $217,000 in fines. Of those, the Suffolk Center was found responsible for just over $36,000.
The New York Health Department declined to share any reason for the drop in enforcement actions against nursing homes.
New York is also one of few states that have no law establishing a minimum number of assistants per nursing home resident. A bill in the New York legislature called the “Safe Staffing for Quality Care Act” sought to change that, but it stalled in committee last year.
As the Department of Health scales back penalties, New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman appears to be getting tougher on nursing homes. In February his office filed criminal charges against a Bronx nursing aide who was caught on camera pushing a dementia patient. The same month, his office accused owners and employees of a Medford nursing home of providing substandard care and cheating Medicaid. Defendants in both cases pleaded not guilty.
When asked about possible criminal charges against the Suffolk Center, a spokesman for the attorney general's office said he could not comment on potential or ongoing investigations.