Patrick Plourde sat beside his father’s bed Wednesday at the Soldiers’ Home in Holyoke, his face and body covered in protective gear as he kept vigil for the inevitable.
His 88-year-old father, a former Air Force master sergeant from Westfield, lay dying in a hospice ward — unconscious, on morphine, and showing symptoms of coronavirius, Patrick said in a phone interview as he watched over him.
Louis Plourde already had received the last rites of the Roman Catholic Church, conducted from afar via social media. Now, waiting in a five-bed room that had been vacated for privacy, an only child grieved, his sorrow laced with anger.
“I’ve been ready to punch a wall,” Patrick Plourde said. “This is my Dad, I’m going to defend him, and I felt his needs weren’t being covered.”
Plourde, like others with relatives at the home, learned only from news reports this week of an outbreak of coronavirus at the Soldiers’ Home, where 15 veterans have died since March 1. At least six of the deaths have been linked to coronavirus, and more might be added pending test results.
Plourde, 54, hadn’t seen his father since March 14, when visitors were barred from the home’s hilltop campus. He hadn’t known until Monday that veterans were dying at the home, that many other veterans and staff had tested positive, and that local and state authorities allegedly had been kept in the dark as the fatalities mounted.
“Nobody knew. Nobody told me anything,” Plourde said. “It shocked me that they tried to hide it."
Plourde, who lives in nearby Springfield, said he felt lucky to be with his father, even if he couldn’t communicate with him. Plourde had managed to make his way to his bedside, where he waited and summoned memories, knowing he would be the only family member to see his father’s last moments.
Bearing witness seemed improbable as late as Wednesday morning.
On Tuesday, Plourde recalled, “a nurse on the floor called me and said, ‘It’s bad, please come in.’ ” But when he arrived outside the home, a social worker turned him away.
“We don’t know anything about this,” Plourde said he was told.
He tried again later, only to be told by another social worker that relatives were not allowed into the complex.
But on Wednesday, the gates somehow opened to Plourde after Compassus, a hospice company caring for his father, worked with Soldiers’ Home staff and found a way to bring him inside. Plourde said he was unsure who pulled what strings, but that many conversations were involved.
When he arrived, there lay his father, a once-robust man who had been suffering from a “laundry list” of ailments, Plourde said, including prostate cancer and congestive heart failure.
He also had developed shortness of breath and a fever, symptoms of coronavirus that threatened his health even further. One of 13 children, his father was facing the end isolated from nearly all of his family.
“It’s just hard,” Plourde said. “There’s nobody else who can say goodbye.”
Plourde praised the nurses who had treated the veteran of the Korean and Vietnam wars like their grandfather. But he criticized management of the home, where his father has been living since January.
Even as he spoke Wednesday, about 25 veterans were chatting and watching television in the common room on the floor, Plourde said incredulously. Despite the uproar over the deaths at the home, despite the risks of contagion among a frail and elderly population, the men still weren’t wearing masks, he said.
“I’m shocked. It’s going to go everywhere," Plourde said. “There’s no separation. There’s no distancing.”
Throughout the facility, Plourde said, veterans appeared to have been shifted from wing to wing to consolidate cases for a dwindling supply of nurses. His father, for example, had been moved at least three times in recent weeks.
Phone service had become difficult in that time, he said. Cellphones disappeared, or they weren’t charged, or his father was inexplicably unavailable.
“It’s been a hassle to get a hold of him,” Plourde said.
And here his father lay in his final hours, alone except for his son and a hospice worker, placed in a room with four other beds that his son said had been occupied.
Plourde questioned why better precautions hadn’t been ordered.
“The nurses who are taking care of him are wonderful,” Plourde said. “But we knew the virus was going to come in here. That was a given.”
While sitting beside his father, Plourde spoke affectionately of a man raised in Caribou, Maine, who had spent 21 years in the Air Force. He went to school after the military and forged a second career as an insurance adjuster.
“The man never sat down,” Plourde said of his father. “He was one of a kind. He was fun, happy, very intelligent, and he never made an enemy.”
And when he was given a bed at Holyoke, a personal dream had been fulfilled. The Soldiers’ Home is where he wanted to be.
“To him, this was the best place,” Plourde said. “And at the beginning, I thought we were very lucky.”
By Wednesday, that had changed. Although the nursing care was exceptional, he reiterated, the last hours of a proud veteran were being spent in a place that now seemed as risky as the battlefield.
Plourde spoke through a mask, only a few feet from his dying father, and talked again of the man who had raised him.
Brian MacQuarrie can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.