We are sharing this article on our blog with the permission of the author, reporter Greg Tufaro and MyCentralJersey.com.
We also would like to express gratitude to Elvira’s family for sharing information about this article and for supporting St Joseph’s Senior Home in this challenging time. From the bottom of our hearts Thank You!
After winning a six-week battle with coronavirus that left her near death during a 32-day hospitalization, 86-year-old Elvira Attilio expressed a desire to go home.
For the mother of seven and grandmother of 19, whose grandson is South Amboy High School alumnus and current Rutgers University student-athlete Pat Walsh, home is the St. Joseph’s Senior Home, an assisted living and nursing center in Woodbridge, where Attilio may have contracted the coronavirus.
The staff at the facility, which provided Attilio with outstanding love and care since she made it her residence nearly a year ago, according to Elvira’s family, welcomed her home last night.
Walsh, along with his parents and sister, rode in a car behind an ambulance from Hackensack Meridian Health Raritan Bay Medical Center in Perth Amboy, making a pre-arranged two-plus mile trip as Attilio was transferred from the life-saving hands of a compassionate hospital staff back into the life-nurturing hands of the nursing home.
The family, adhering to social distancing guidelines, clapped and waved from afar as a stretcher transporting Attilio was loaded into the ambulance outside the hospital. The Walshes repeated the celebratory gesticulations as Elvira was safely returned home from the same vehicle in front of St. Joseph’s Senior Home just before sunset.
Attilio’s daughter, Annette Walsh, said Elvira’s preexisting medical conditions, including atrial fibrillation and esophagitis, among others, made her a “high risk” coronavirus patient.
As the global pandemic was beginning its assault in the New York-metropolitan area in mid-March, Attilio commenced her medical odyssey, which left Annette “scared to death” and unable to watch or listen to news reports.
“I had to shut them off,” said Annette, noting New Jersey now ranks second in the country with more than 105,000 coronavirus cases and second nationally with nearly 6,000 coronavirus-related deaths. “I couldn’t listen to any more of the tragedies.”
The Walsh family felt compelled to share Elvira’s story as a way of giving hope to others, as well as to spotlight what they consider to be the amazing work of the hospital’s medical staff and of the Little Servant Sisters of the Immaculate Conception, who run the nonprofit St. Joseph’s Senior Home.
“During a time where the news is only talking about case totals and death totals of the coronavirus, I think it’s important to also know about the positive and good stories that come out of the coronavirus,” Pat Walsh said. “Hopefully, in a time where there is so much fear in society, this can give people hope that there is a chance, and if we all play our part and do what we need to do during this pandemic, we are all in this together and everything will be alright.”
Annette said her mother’s doctor, Gregory Shypula, M.D., at Hackensack Meridian Health Raritan Bay Medical Center “never gave up” on Elvira, who signed a Do Not Intubate order, meaning she could receive potentially life-saving chest compressions and cardiac drugs, but medical staff could not insert a breathing tube.
With Attillio’s symptoms running the gamut, from being febrile to coughing to trouble breathing to double pneumonia, according to her family, doctors attempted to help her breathe, switching from high-flow oxygen masks to venturi oxygen masks.
“They tried all different types of oxygen masks to get the one that was right for her,” Annette said. “They had to respect her DNI.
At the same time, they didn’t give up.”
Pat said his extended family, prohibited from physically being at the hospital due to COVID-19 visitor restrictions, participated in a Zoom video conference call when his grandmother was critical.
“We were just saying our goodbyes just in case anything happened overnight,” he explained. “It was a very emotional time. I was just praying it wouldn’t end like this, she wouldn’t pass like this where she wouldn’t be able to be (physically) surrounded by the people who love her or to have a proper funeral right now. That shouldn’t be the situation for anybody. After that long Zoom, she called back to my mom and said, ‘I’m actually feeling better.’ It was almost like maybe knowing there were so many people that loved her and were around her and supported her, that kind of upped her spirit and she slowly bounced back.”
The families of Annette and her six siblings took daily turns to be responsible for interacting with Elvira through the video platform of a GrandPad, which is an easy-to-use touchscreen tablet computer designed for senior citizens who may not be tech savvy.
The interactions not only provided Elvira with company, but assisted an overburdened nursing staff, as the extended family was able to assist Attilio, who has trouble hearing and slight dementia, with tasks as simple as helping her locate on a food tray a bottle of water from which she wanted to drink.
The family’s ability to create a daily checklist of needs and to limit Elvira’s calls to the nursing station solely for medical emergencies also helped ration personal protective equipment, as nurses were required to wear gowns, gloves and masks each time they entered Attilio’s quarantined room.
“The hardest part of this whole thing is we couldn’t be there,” Annette said, noting her family took solace in the outstanding care Elvira received. “There was not a single person – not an aide, not a nurse, not a doctor – that wasn’t patient, kind and caring. And my mother wasn’t easy. She couldn’t hear. She has slight dementia. She was lonely and isolated and the family (couldn’t be there) to help. They were all just really super incredible.”
Annette said she feels the same about the staff at the St. Joseph’s Senior Home, which state officials reopened earlier this month and which Attilio’s family financially supported through a fundraising campaign it initiated online.
The entire resident population of the home was transferred to a similar facility in the Whippany section of Hanover last month following a coronavirus outbreak.
State health officials requested the transfer after assessing the status of St. Joseph’s Senior Home, where 24 of its 94 patients tested positive for COVID-19 and the 70 other residents were presumed positive.
The virus also spread to caregivers, leaving the facility severely short-staffed.
As of today, the Attillio family’s GoFundMe page, titled “Save St. Joe’s,” has raised nearly $11,000 to assist with expenses related to sanitizing the facility and replenishing it with supplies.
“This story is not about our mom,” Elvira’s daughter, Fran Attilio Groesbeck wrote on the page, which was created earlier this month. “It’s about the loving and courageous staff at St. Joe’s who cared for her – before, during and after this crisis. The Sisters and staff laid their own lives on the line to help our mom and all the residents, in every way possible. It’s a place of love, hope, and caring, of devoted personal care and attention.”
Pat Walsh said the family’s decision to move Elvira to an assisted living and nursing home facility “was not an easy one,” adding his grandmother “wanted her own space and to be in a situation where she could be able to practice religion on a daily basis and go to church every day.”
“She knew that St. Joe’s was for her and she fell in love with the place,” Pat said, noting while Elvira was hospitalized “she just prayed every day that she would get back home. The fact that the health department was able to pull together to get St. Joe’s back up and running is amazing.”
He equates his grandmother’s marathon medical journey and accompanying faith to that of a runner crossing the finish line.
“When you see someone cross the finish line after they win, they always say, ‘Praise the Lord,’ or make a sign of the cross to signify how thankful they are to get that spot,” Walsh said. “But it’s difficult to have faith when times are tough. The only thing we really have is our faith. My grandmother knew the situation and circumstances and wasn’t scared.”
Anticipating a reporter might want to talk to his grandmother, Pat posed two questions on behalf of the journalist to Elvira, asking her for what she was grateful and what advice she would have for others battling the coronavirus.
“I am grateful for all my nurses, all their compassion, knowledge, and personality during my time at Hackensack Meridian in Perth Amboy,” Elvira said. “Always keep the faith. It’s hard to be positive and to look to the Lord when your world seems to be crumbling down. But the good Lord always has a plan. I’m just thankful for my faith and my family that got me through this time.”
Attilio, who lost her beloved husband of 60 years, Richard, in 2012, recently asked Annette, “Why am I still here?”
“I know God leaves you here until the work is done that he wants you to do,” Annette recalls her mother saying, “but I don’t know what that is.”
Annette, who said her family is going to the hospital next week to discuss the possibility of donating Elvira’s blood with the intent to help others because she is “almost positive (her mother) can contribute to finding some kind of a cure to this thing,” had an answer.
“You just gave hope,” Annette told her mother, “to thousands of people that are being diagnosed and scared to death that it (the virus) can be figured out.”