On Veterans Day last November, David Liesse spoke to his father through a window at the LaSalle Veterans’ Home, enjoying the visit despite the limitations imposed by pandemic restrictions.
The two joked and laughed, unaware of the heartbreak that lay ahead.
Two days later, word came that Jerome Liesse tested positive for the coronavirus.
Two days after that, the World War II veteran was transferred to a hospital, and David Liesse was allowed to see him for a compassionate care visit, though he said his father was already “out of it.”
And just two days later, at 1 a.m., David Liesse got the call.
His father was dead.
Gone in just six days, after surviving a world war and living to 95.
“In retrospect, I wish I would’ve asked more questions, but I trusted them, I put my faith in them, I put my father’s life in their hands and, pre-COVID, I had no problems. They were very, very good, very caring to my father,” David Liesse said of the state-run veterans’ home that was his father’s home since 2018.
“But after COVID, it’s just like, nobody knew what to do.”
David Liesse is one of about two dozen relatives who lost family members at the LaSalle Veterans’ Home who are now preparing to file suit against the state and the home for what Liesse calls “all-around mismanagement.”
He holds the state liable for the death of his father, a native of Spring Valley in Bureau County.
“They did not take proper precautions with him when they needed to,” he said.
“When I left on that Wednesday, he had absolutely no signs of any illness of any kind, and he was confined to his room, he never left his room, but people came into his room,” David Liesse said. “The virus doesn’t run down the hall on its own.
“Somehow it was brought into his room, and he caught it. So, there had to be mismanagement somehow, that proper care was not taken so the virus was spread.”
Liesse said the staff at the home were “excellent” and “dedicated,” though there would be instances where staff would come in, without a mask, to help his father with his jigsaw puzzles. Still, he points to problems with leadership, detailed in recent reports, as the main issue.
Gov. J.B. Pritzker and former department of veterans’ affairs director Linda Chapa LaVia called to offer their condolences shortly after his father’s death — and before the release of reports detailing conditions in the home.
Lawyers Isabel Bacidore and Michael Bonamarte said their firm, Levin & Perconti, plans to file around 20 lawsuits against the state on behalf of David Liesse and family members of other veterans who died at the LaSalle Veterans’ Home.
Joanne Stachowicz is one of them.
Her uncle, Anthony Samolinski, also died in November from the virus. A native of LaSalle, he lived at the home since June 2016, she said.
The Korean War veteran and his niece would “talk about whatever came to mind” during her two or three visits each week. Usually, they touched on his experience at the home and the Cubs, his favorite team.
When the pandemic hit, Stachowicz wasn’t able to visit in person, something that “really started to affect” Samolinski, she said.
To try to “keep his spirits up,” Stachowicz would call more, eventually visiting Samolinski outdoors in July when the home allowed it.
But surging cases meant that in-person summer visit would be their last until Oct. 29, when Stachowicz said she was allowed to see her uncle for about two hours because staff felt “mentally, he was kind of suffering with not having any visitors, and they were making an exception for me to see him.”
Within three or four days of that visit, Samolinski started to feel ill.
Stachowicz received a call that staff was going to move him to the COVID-19 unit at the veterans’ home. Hours later she received another call asking if she wanted Samolinski to be sent to a hospital now that he was having trouble breathing and running a fever.
Stachowicz approved the transfer, and Samolinski, 88, was moved to the hospital on Nov. 4. He died there on Nov. 18.
“We need to do what’s right for the people we’re taking care of, and I feel like that just didn’t happen,” Stachowicz said. “When push came to shove, they let down a lot of us in the care they were providing during this pandemic.”
Bonamarte, the lawyer who represents Stachowicz, pointed to reports released late last year that he said show “horrible mismanagement of the facility.”
“You have a lack of planning, you have a lack of infection prevention plans or policies, major issues with communication, staff training, education, the wrong type of hand sanitizer,” Bonamarte said.
“They just really dropped the ball, and what makes it so much more devastating is that it happens this far into the pandemic when you are nearing the holiday season, you’re nearing the time where there’s some hope in the future that vaccines are going to be coming out in December, in January. It’s truly horrifying what the reports have revealed.”
Thirty-six veterans at the LaSalle home died, and another 36 who lived at state-run veterans’ homes in Quincy and Manteno also died after testing positive for the virus.
A spokesman for the state Veterans’ Affairs Department said in a statement “we are deeply saddened by the deaths of our residents due to the COVID-19 pandemic, and our hearts are with their families. Unfortunately, we cannot comment further due to pending litigation.”
A scathing inspector general’s report released last week detailed miscommunications and mismanagement at the state’s department of veterans’ affairs during the outbreak at the LaSalle home, which is about 95 miles south of Chicago.
Before the inspector general’s findings were made public, a pair of reports released in November offered a first look at conditions in the LaSalle home, including use of ineffective hand sanitizer, employees showing up for work after testing positive for the coronavirus and inadequate “hand hygiene.”
Bacidore said the reports released by the state did a good job of “highlighting exactly what needed to be done,” but it’s clear to her and Bonamarte that policies and procedures weren’t implemented early enough to curb the spread of the virus.
David Liesse is still grappling with his father’s death. They used to talk every day. When he learned the home his parents lived in was going to be sold, he nearly called his father before remembering “my dad’s not here to call.”
“There are moments that I’m totally at rest — at peace with him being gone — and then, just like now, it all comes back,” David Liesse said.
He urged others with family members at long-term care facilities not to be afraid to ask questions about the policies and procedures in place.
“Luckily, we’re getting towards the end of this, but there are still people in nursing homes and veterans’ homes who are very, very susceptible to maybe lax procedures that are in place that need to be reevaluated,” he said.