“What went down here where they decided at some point this one goes to the hospital or this one doesn’t? I’m not saying that the hospital would have saved my mom but it could have, it may have. I’m not saying she would have survived, I’m saying we would have given it everything we had on it.”

Rogelio Garcia on his mother’s COVID-19 death in nursing home

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It’s true that nursing homes across the country became a hotbed for COVID-19 activity that led to deaths among residents and staff. But members of one local family are questioning a McAllen facility’s handling of their mother’s case after she died just a few days following what they believe to be conflicting news of her status.

They’ve since been left in shock, and they want answers.

Rogelio Garcia argues more could have been done for his mother, Eufemia Garcia, who died July 24 of complications related to COVID-19 at Grand Terrace Rehabilitation and Healthcare in McAllen.

The nursing home alerted families when positive cases of the coronavirus began turning up at the facility and continually issued letters updating them about the number of cases there.

One of the letters, dated July 20, stated 43 residents and 24 staff members tested positive for the disease.

Data compiled by the Texas Health and Human Services Commission shows that the facility reported a total of 24 staff members and 63 residents tested positive as of July 24. Of those, 11 cases among employees and 57 cases among residents were active.

The data also showed six residents had died of COVID-19.

Garcia, an attorney based in Houston, said one of his sisters called the facility on July 19 or 20, and she was assured Eufemia was not among the infected.

“We felt comfortable after we talked to them because they said that my mother was not one of the residents that had shown symptomology or was testing positive for that,” Garcia said. “However, in hindsight, we believe that at that point my mother was already showing lots of symptoms … that she was probably infected with COVID-19.”

On Tuesday, July 21, that sister was notified by the facility that their mother tested positive after all. Even more alarming for the family, the employee who delivered the news said their mother had also gotten past the most critical stage of fever and chills — all within the course of a single day.

“We were surprised and my sister was surprised because they told her, first of all, that she was not showing any symptoms of COVID-19 on the 20th, then they told us on the 21st that she was positive,” Garcia said, adding they were told their mother “had already passed the bad deal” and “that it appeared that she was recovering.”

Just a few days later, on Friday, July 24, Garcia’s sister — who asked not to be identified by name — said her daughter spoke with Eufemia through a video conference call and saw that she was hooked up to oxygen.

Later that evening, the night nurse notified the family that Eufemia had died. She was 91 years old.

“She called me to tell me that my mother had ‘expired,'” said Bella Diaz, another one of Garcia’s sisters. “It was after 11 p.m. so I was half asleep and I said, ‘I’m sorry, what?’ and she said, ‘Your mom has expired.’”

Diaz said she called the nurse back asking if she was sure they were talking about the right person.

“Obviously, I was shocked because, I mean, I didn’t even know she was that ill,” Diaz said. “There was no reason for me to think that she had passed because I had talked to her like a week before and she seemed fine.”

Garcia contacted his mother’s primary care doctor, a family friend who’d cared for Eufemia for over 30 years, the following Monday, July 27. According to Garcia, the doctor appeared surprised that Eufemia died and was unaware that she had been experiencing a fever and chills.

Eufemia Garcia, center, died on July 24 of complications related to COVID-19 at Grand Terrace Rehabilitation and Healthcare in McAllen. Her family were left shocked by the circumstances surrounding her diagnosis and death, and are seeking answers. (Courtesy photo)

“The reason why that is surprising is because when you have a physician that’s in charge of that patient, he normally gets told those things,” Garcia said. “They pick up the phone and tell them, ‘Hey, your patient is showing symptoms of fever, or she’s showing chills.’ And nothing like that occurred, according to the doctor, and we know for certain that we were not told even though we were checking up on my mother almost on a daily basis because of all the letters we were getting, and we were concerned.”

The doctor also said he had visited with Eufemia around early July because she was lacking appetite, which is a possible symptom for those with COVID-19.

Garcia pointed to a July 13 letter Grand Terrace issued to families that said three residents were hospitalized due to COVID-19.

If Eufemia was experiencing lack of appetite and developed a fever and chills, Garcia wondered why she wasn’t taken to a hospital.

“What went down here where they decided at some point this one goes to the hospital or this one doesn’t?” he said. “I’m not saying that the hospital would have saved my mom but it could have, it may have.”

He noted that his mother had diabetes for 10 to 15 years but it was controlled.

“I’m not saying she would have survived, I’m saying we would have given it everything we had on it.”

Daniel Rodriguez, the executive director of Grand Terrace, said in an email that the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act of 1996, better known as HIPAA, and state confidentiality of medical information laws prevented them from commenting on the specifics of Eufemia’s situation.

However, regarding the transfer of patients to the hospital, Rodriguez said “generally, residents are sent out of the Facility when there is an identified need for a higher level of care.”

“These transfers,” Rodriguez wrote, “are made in consultation with and on the order of a physician, and are real time responses to what is happening with the resident from a clinical standpoint.”

Reflecting on what happened, though, Garcia’s sister said she felt their mother was neglected.

“I feel like we were ill-informed; they were not telling us the truth,” she said. “Now that I look back, I ask myself, ‘Well, why didn’t they tell me this?’”

As a consequence of COVID-19, Eufemia was placed in a body bag which, once sealed up, cannot be reopened.

Eufemia was buried in that body bag and her family never got the opportunity to visually identify her upon her death.

“They told me they couldn’t open it,” Diaz said tearfully and admitted she believed her mother could still be at that nursing home.

“I think that one day, when this pandemic is over, I’m going to go and make sure that that was my mom,” Diaz said.

“I’m very disappointed,” she said of the overall experience with Grand Terrace. “That was my mom, I was very close to her and the way they called me, from the beginning, I thought it was kind of cold.”

Diaz said Eufemia’s doctor was always at her beck and call and if he had been kept updated of her mother’s health status, Diaz said things would have turned out differently.

“Without a doubt,” Diaz said.