All his life, Ted Monette walked willingly into danger.
As a colonel in the Army, he served in both Vietnam and the Gulf War. As an officer for the Federal Emergency Management Agency, he oversaw operations at Ground Zero following 9/11 and later aided in the grisly aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.
It was a coronavirus infection at a nursing home for veterans, however, that eventually took his life.
Monette is one of at least six residents of the Holyoke Soldiers’ Home to die from complications of COVID-19, the illness caused by the coronavirus, in recent weeks. In all, 13 residents of the home died in March, and results of COVID-19 tests on several of the other victims are pending.
News of the facility’s outbreak rattled state and local officials this week, casting a shadow over the facility and its now-suspended superintendent, Bennett Walsh. It has raised questions among families who have recently lost relatives at the home about which deaths can be traced back to the virus, while adding a layer of grief for those whose loved ones are known to have succumbed to the virus.
“He is one of those people who shouldn’t be forgotten,” said Monette’s son, Greg. “He’s one of thousands of unsung or quiet heroes who have been the fabric of this country for a long time, and they’re the ones who have made the most and sacrificed the most for all of us, and it’s important for people to know.”
The elder Monette, 74, arrived at the Holyoke Soldiers’ Home in late January, still an imposing presence at 6-foot-3 but with the diminished faculties brought on by Parkinson’s disease and early-onset dementia.
The family had settled on the home, in part, because of its reputation.
The 247-bed long-term care facility, located on Cherry Street, had been a part of the community since 1952. And after interacting with staff, the family got the feeling employees treated their duties as more than simply a job.
“You can’t say that about most nursing homes,” Greg Monette said. “We felt my dad was getting the best care possible in his situation.”
In mid-March, as the coronavirus pandemic spread, the home barred visitors from seeing residents. Then, a little more than a week ago, Monette’s family learned that another resident at the home had tested positive for COVID-19 and had been quarantined. A few days later Monette’s father started exhibiting symptoms of the virus.
The family quickly arranged to have an ambulance take Monette from the facility to nearby Holyoke Medical Center, in an effort to limit exposure to other residents.
“But I think we knew in the back of our heads,” Greg Monette said, “that it was too late."
Soon after arriving at the hospital last week, Ted Monette’s health declined. He later tested positive for the coronavirus.
Just after 3 a.m. Monday, Greg Monette said, he was contacted by doctors at the hospital. His father’s oxygen levels were dropping; his heart rate had slowed. There was a “do not resuscitate” request in place.
Greg Monette drove to the hospital alone. When he arrived, he was required to dress in protective gear — face mask, gloves, gown — before being allowed to enter his father’s room under what he called a “very special circumstance."
For safety reasons, he was allowed only a few minutes to say goodbye.
Greg Monette looked down at his unconscious father. It was the first time in more than three weeks the two had been face to face.
He told his father, who’d always been a quiet man, that he was there on behalf of the rest of the family, and that he was there to say goodbye.
“Just the things you say to someone that you love,” he said.
Monette said he shared the story of his father’s last days to highlight the speed with which the virus can steal a loved one.
But others who have lost loved ones at the facility in recent weeks have been left to wonder what killed their fathers.
When 90-year-old Alfred H. Clark passed away at the Soldiers’ Home on Feb. 25, he was “near the end of his life,” according to his daughter, Martha Mannion. “He was in the hospice wing.”
His family does not know whether he was tested for COVID-19; his son, Jerald Clark, said they were not notified about any tests, and he assumes his father did not have the virus.
“Who knows for sure?” he said.
Marcia Schuhle, whose father, William J. Beaubien, 98, died March 17 at the facility, was also unaware of any link between her father’s passing and the outbreak at the facility.
She said her father, who was also under hospice care, died of Alzheimer’s; asked whether a test was done for COVID-19, she replied, “No, there wasn’t a need to."
“I'm just so very thankful that Dad died on the 17th,” said Schuhle, “which was before the crisis escalated.”
Even in the aftermath of this week’s news, however, multiple people with relatives who’d resided at the home praised the work of the staff, who they said consistently went above and beyond.
“Every time we went in there, there was someone giving him attention,” said James T. Fitzgerald, whose father, James M. Fitzgerald, died on March 15 in the home’s hospice unit. The family does not believe the death was COVID-19-related. “It was the place where if you had to go somewhere, this is where you'd want to be.”
For his part, Greg Monette said he doesn’t yet have a response to the Soldiers’ Home’s handling of the spread of the coronavirus at the facility.
“I don’t think anyone was adequately prepared for what’s happening now,” he said.
His father, he said, will be buried in a veterans cemetery in Agawam, with Greg’s mother. The family cannot be there for the burial service, due to the threat of the possible spread of COVID-19.
But they plan to visit the gravesite after he’s buried, and will hold a memorial service with family whenever it’s deemed safe.
“It’s not that he died,” Greg Monette said. “It’s that he lived a full life and the work that he did is kind of like the blueprint, for lack of a better word, for how we need to proceed.”
“With dignity, and respect, and honor for those that we are going to lose.”
Dugan Arnett of the Globe staff contributed to this report.
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