Lawyers representing some of the families who lost relatives after a COVID-19 outbreak at the LaSalle Veterans’ Home are preparing to file a lawsuit.
Lindsay Lamb’s grandfather, Richard Cieski Sr., died in November. He was one of more than 30 residents at the home to contract COVID-19 and die from the outbreak there. Lamb says she was close to her grandfather.
“He was, we always laughed, he was a big schmoozer. He was a big flirt. He was a big family man, his family was everything to him. His wife was everything to him,” said Lamb.
About seven years ago, Cieski’s health started to decline. He had dementia. On on top of that, Lamb says he was a big guy. When it became too much to care for him on their own, the family decided it was best that Richard move to the veterans' home.
He qualified to go there because he enlisted in the army in 1951 -- at age 21-- and fought in the Korean War.
Cieski’s wife, Bernie, visited him every day. She’d help him get ready for meals and just spend time with him. But Lamb says that stopped when the state went into lockdown due to COVID-19 pandemic.
“Initially, like everyone else, we thought, you know, it would just last a few weeks, and then, you know, everything would go back to normal,” said Lamb. “Of course, it was scary, you know, same feeling I think a lot of people had.”
It wasn’t until June that Cieski’s family could come and visit him. And when they did, the visits had a window between them. The nurses and nursing assistants had a soft spot for him. Around the beginning of November, Lindsay Lamb says her mom got a text message to check on him.
“So I called the nurse's station and then they said they were just down there and he was fine. So then we got the FaceTime where he appeared to have a stroke. I mean, it was heartbreaking because he couldn't talk,” said Leslie Lamb.
Leslie Lamb says she called until she got a doctor to go check on her dad. The doctor later confirmed that Cieski had contracted COVID-19. Cieski was in the COVID-19 wing for about a week and then his family got the call to come to and say their goodbyes.
“And I brought a bottle of Windex and paper towels to wipe the window down so we could see him clearly,” said Leslie Lamb. ”And we made a poster that says, 'We love you, Dad,' and we signed everybody's names.”
The family says that when they went to see him he looked like he did any other day, laughing and joking and calling everyone by their nicknames.
Long-term care facilities have been particularly hard-hit due to the vulnerable populations who live in them. Illinois Governor J.B. Pritzker noted the work ahead, “Look, what we want to do is restore confidence that people have in our Veterans' Affairs Department, and we want to do our best to take care of our veterans.”
The outbreak and deaths at the facility prompted the Illinois Senate Veterans' Affairs Committee to call for a virtual hearing in November.
Some of the findings included staff not wearing proper personal protective equipment or practicing social distancing, and sanitizer at the front entrance that wasn’t alcohol-based. Isabela Bacidore is a lawyer for Cieski’s family. She says negative pressure rooms, used to isolate patients from airborne disease, weren’t being utilized appropriately.
“Actually, the negative pressure rooms, they found that the doors were kept open, because they said that while some of these residents are fall risks, and the risk outweighed the benefit of keeping the doors closed," said Bacidore.
In December, amid outrage over the handling of the outbreak at the LaSalle Veterans’ home, Governor Pritzker fired the director of the facility. Then, earlier this month, the head of the Illinois Department of Veterans’ Affairs, Linda Chapa LaVia, resigned. For Lindsay Lamb, it’s hard to think about the months her grandfather spent without family.
The law firm representing Cieski’s family says they’re currently representing 16 different families who lost relatives at the facility. It’s unclear when they plan to file their lawsuit. But what is clear is that they’ll be filing against the State of Illinois, the Illinois Department of Veterans' Affairs, and the LaSalle Veterans’ home. Bacidore says they’re suing for wrongful death and survival actions.
- Juanpablo Ramirez-Franco is a current corps member for Report for America, an initiative of the GroundTruth Project. It's a national service program that places talented journalists in local newsrooms like WNIJ. You can learn more about Report for America at wnij.org.