Morristown woman recounts harrowing journey of 98-year-old mom with COVID-19

Catherine Onuska, 98, is flanked by granddaughter Juli Orfini and daughter Barbara Orfini. Photo courtesy of Juli Orfini
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Barbara Orfini never dreamed she’d be making pizza deliveries at age 65. But she was thrilled to be doing it on Thursday.

The Morristown resident delivered 10 pies as a thank you to the staff at CareOne in Hanover, where her 98-year-old mother, Catherine Onuska, and dozens of other seniors were transferred Wednesday from the St. Joseph’s Senior Home in Woodbridge.

“It’s going to feel good knowing this is the place where my mom is,” said Orfini, who described a nightmarish week of being prevented from visiting or communicating with her frightened mother as the novel coronavirus ravaged St. Joseph’s.

HEALTHIER TIMES: Catherine Onuska, 98, with family, before she tested positive for COVID-19. Photo courtesy of Juli Orfini

The state ordered that facility closed. CareOne relocated all its Hanover clients to CareOne centers in Morristown and Parsippany to make room for the Woodbridge influx, an effort that won a shoutout from Gov. Phil Murphy.

State Health Commissioner Judith M. Persichilli said Thursday that 24 of 78 residents and five staffers at St. Joseph’s have tested positive for COVID-19; as a result, all are presumed to have the disease.

The virus has killed 81 Garden State residents so far. Eighty percent of the victims were over age 60, and almost half had underlying medical conditions. Eighteen were from longterm care facilities, state health officials report.

NJ Health Commissioner Judith Persichilli speaks to the media  at Bergen Community College (BCC) in Paramus on March 20, 2020. Photo by Thomas E. Franklin

Among them were three St. Joseph’s residents, according to Persichilli. The dead included Onuska’s roommate, said her daughter.

Over the last week, virtually all of the family’s frantic calls to St. Joseph’s staff went unanswered, Orfini said.

“I just wanted them to pick up the phone. When they did pick up the phone, it was to say, ‘Your mom tested positive.’ That was it,” Orfini said.

Catherine Onuska, 98, is transferred to CareOne in Hanover after the St. Joseph’s Senior Home in Woodbridge was closed because of the coronavirus. Video by Juli Orfini, March 25, 2020:

St. Joseph’s, a nonprofit nursing home and assisted living center, has been run since 1981 by the Little Servant Sisters of the Immaculate Conception, a Catholic order. It has a five-star rating from Medicare.gov.

Onuska, who has a heart condition and memory issues, received good care there for three years, Orfini said. But the daughter is angry with the facility for its performance this month during this crisis.

COVID-19 started spreading at St. Joseph’s soon after a nun returned from a month-long visit to Israel, Orfini said. The nun did not self-quarantine, she said.

As the situation deteriorated, Orfini said, the facility was not candid about staff shortages. Orfini said her sister, Sue, a nurse, offered to help and was rebuffed.

Emergency personnel in protective gear deliver residents to CareOne in Hanover, from a Woodbridge facility shut down by COVID-19. March 25, 2020. Photo by Juli Orfini

Visitors were kept away since March 16, 2020, when they were told a resident had the coronavirus, Orfini said. The family gave St. Joe’s an Amazon Echo and a Jitterbug senior-friendly phone, in hopes of maintaining contact with Onuska.

That went nowhere, said Orfini, who is retired from Visiting Angels, a home health aide service, and now works part-time at Whole Foods in Morristown.

Her sister managed to get through to their mom about a week ago, Orfini said.

“She was just terrified, absolutely terrified. She was crying, saying, ‘What’s happening, Suzy? How come you don’t visit me anymore? What’s happening? Take me home, take me home,'” Orfini related.

A woman who answered the phone at St. Joseph’s on Thursday told Morristown Green she was not authorized to answer questions and hung up. An email to St. Joseph’s seeking comments has not yet received a response.

CareOne officials in Hanover could not immediately be reach for comment on Thursday.

CORONAVIRUS CARAVAN: Vehicles transport seniors from a COVID-19-ravaged facility in Woodbridge to CareOne in Hanover, March 25, 2020. Video by Juli Orfini:

Orfini said she is heartened by the welcome shown by CareOne employees, who have promised FaceTime sessions soon to reconnect families with their loved ones. Although nurses say Onuska is not eating yet, she has no fever and appears aware of her new surroundings, Orfini said.

Orfini waited outside CareOne with family members for six hours on Wednesday, as a caravan of emergency medical technicians delivered St. Joseph’s residents in wheelchairs and on stretchers.

“We were just wanting to get a glimpse of mom, just to make sure she survived the trip,” Orfini said.

“Love you! Love you!” she yelled from a distance.

UPDATE: LOCKED OUT: DYING IN A PANDEMIC

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1 COMMENT

  1. I am sorry to learn of Barbara Orfini’s recent experience at Saint Joseph’s.
    My mother has been a resident of Saint Joseph’s assisted living facility for over 5 years. We always felt that she was receiving exemplary care. While visitors were prohibited and residents were confined to their rooms after the coronavirus arrived, I continued my daily phone calls which were always answered and I was provided updates of my mother’s condition.

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