Vivian and Alexa Rivera think of their mother, Ana Celia Martinez, as “a survivor.” Martinez and her siblings lost their parents when they were just children in Puerto Rico, forcing them to take care of each other and fend for themselves. When Martinez moved to the United States, she carved out a life for herself as a seamstress and learned to be resourceful in raising her children. Her daughters still laugh when they talk about Martinez’s many quirks, like writing her address on her Tupperware to ensure her children returned it to her Wilson Street home in the Williamsburg neighborhood of Brooklyn.
Late last year when Martinez went in for a relatively routine knee surgery, Vivian and Alexa were thrilled for what they thought would be their mother’s “new lease on life.” The 78-year-old woman suffered from rheumatoid arthritis and had fallen a couple of times in her home. The surgery would require physical therapy and several weeks of recovery, but Vivian and Alexa were certain that in no time, their mother would be back on her feet, cooking and hanging out with her friends at the local senior center. There was no way to know that in a few short months the sisters would lose their mother to COVID-19 due to what they allege was medical negligence at the rehabilitation center tasked with Martinez’s care.
Now Vivian and Alexa are fighting for justice for their mother and all senior citizens who they say have been treated as “disposable” during the pandemic. The sisters created a Facebook page called Voices for Seniors, a place for families to mobilize and share their stories of alleged neglect.
Each week, more horror stories emerge about the novel coronavirus and the lives COVID-19 has taken from us. This will be the first Mother’s Day that thousands of people like Vivian and Alexa are without their mothers, robbed of the opportunity to say goodbye or mourn their passing with a funeral service.
Navigating this unprecedented public health crisis was never going to be easy, especially not for those who have lost someone they love. What has made things infinitely worse, the sisters say, is the callous way elderly people have been treated in the face of it all.
“Just because my mother was over the age of 70 doesn’t mean she was dispensable. It doesn’t mean that she was supposed to be some statistic,” Alexa told Prism. “My mother was not a number to us. She was a person who was loved and she’s leaving behind children and grandchildren who feel like their heart[s] [have] been ripped out.”
In recent weeks, right-wing pundits and powerful men like the lieutenant governor of Texas have claimed that grandparents are willing to sacrifice their lives to jumpstart the economy. It is the parents of women like Vivian and Alexa—the elderly and the sick—who pay the ultimate price in this eugenic fantasy. But it’s not just talking heads and lawmakers who are treating the elderly as expendable. In a press call May 6, Vivian and Alexa demanded justice for seniors, joining other daughters of elderly women who died of COVID-19 in nursing facilities because of alleged negligence and mistreatment.
Vivian and Alexa’s mother experienced complications from her knee surgery, developing lower back pain and a large abscess on her leg. This set off a chain of events that necessitated Martinez obtain further treatment and undergo another stint at the hospital. Eventually she was sent to West Islip Long Island’s Our Lady of Consolation Nursing & Rehabilitative Care Center, coinciding with the COVID-19 pandemic that was ravaging New York. When the facility went into lockdown in early March, Vivian and Alexa were optimistic, assuming their mother was in better hands living full-time with healthcare professionals than alone in New York, where Martinez belonged to two of the populations hardest hit by the coronavirus: Latino communities and the elderly.
The sisters allege their family experienced “extreme negligence” at Our Lady of Consolation. Toward the end of March, Martinez repeatedly told Vivian and Alexa that she didn’t feel well. At times she was too hoarse to speak and when she could, she complained of abdominal pain. Martinez also sometimes seemed confused, Alexa said, questioning why she was still in the facility and whether the family was keeping something from her.
Martinez was scheduled to be discharged from the facility March 30, but the preceding days were “endlessly confusing,” Vivian said. They called the facility day and night for information about their mother, whose phone wasn’t working. The sisters say they were given the runaround. At one point, Alexa threatened to call the police if her family wasn’t given access to Martinez. It felt like an endless game of phone tag, Vivian said, and when she and her sister were able to reach one of the many nurses, physicians, case workers, social workers, and other facility staff they had previously spoken to on a daily basis, they were never informed there were confirmed COVID-19 cases in the facility or that her mother had a fever and was experiencing shortness of breath.
A spokeswoman for Catholic Health Services, which runs Our Lady of Consolation, declined to discuss Martinez’s case with the media, but told Newsday: “There is constant and ongoing communication with each patient and their family.”
On March 29 the sisters were in and out of their mother’s Brooklyn apartment, getting it ready for her arrival. The last several weeks had been a nightmare, but at least they were in the home stretch, they thought. No matter what the facility said, the sisters were committed to getting their mother on March 30.
But when the day arrived, Martinez was struggling to breathe. Alexa and Vivian allege it took Our Lady of Consolation staff 12 hours to transfer Martinez less than a mile away to Good Samaritan Hospital Medical Center, where she tested positive for COVID-19. On March 31, Martinez had to be intubated. The following days were horrendous. Martinez’s lung collapsed, her blood pressure fell, her kidneys began to fail. Vivian and Alexa hoped for the best, but they received a phone call April 1 informing them their mother had died while receiving dialysis.
The sisters told Prism that Martinez’s primary language was Spanish and since they were little girls they had acted as their mom’s “secretaries,” helping her with translation or filling out paperwork. For as long as they can remember, they have advocated for their mother.
“We helped her with everything, and we tried really hard to help her with this,” Vivian said. “If given the opportunity, we would have been on it, but we weren’t given the opportunity. Would things have been different if [Our Lady of Consolation] treated her when she started showing symptoms or if we were able to get her out of the facility when this all started? Did someone decide her life wasn’t worth saving because she was over 70? We will never know. ”
Our Lady of Consolation has reported 40 confirmed or presumed COVID-19 deaths, but Vivian and Alexa are unsure if their mother is included in that number because she died at a nearby hospital and not at the facility. Across New York, at least 5,003 nursing home residents have died from COVID-19, according to recent figures. These are the kinds of statistics the sisters say they hate to hear. These numbers become widely disseminated and briefly turn into headlines that illustrate flash points in the pandemic. But for each one of those figures, there is a person who lost their life and a family left grieving in their absence.
Alexa and Vivian told Prism they don’t just want justice for their mother, but for all families who lost an elderly loved one due to negligence during the pandemic. The newly emerging movement demanding justice for seniors released a list of demands yesterday, which include transparency in facilities so that families are fully and speedily informed of changing conditions, allowing them to make informed decisions; equipping nursing facilities with senior-friendly, accessible audio/video devices that allow for easy and direct communication; protocols for attending to, caring for, and treating seniors during a crisis; and independent investigations fully examining gaps and errors that occurred in nursing facilities during the pandemic, among other demands.
The sisters don’t know where their activism will take them. There may be a lawsuit, but for now they are focused on shedding light on what happened to their mom and fighting for accountability alongside other families. They are planning a small demonstration that will take place outside of Our Lady of Consolation Nursing & Rehabilitative Care Center.
“Someone decided to play God and that means we didn’t get to say goodbye to our mother,” Vivian said. “Our mother is dead. We can’t get her back, and the way she died will never be OK. My mom had the right to know if her safety was in danger, and we had the right to know our mom was sick.”