WOODLAND PARK, N.J. – It was the best news Steve Mastropietro could have hoped to receive.
His 91-year-old father had made a near-miraculous rebound on Saturday morning after being diagnosed two days before with COVID-19.
A nurse at the New Jersey Veterans Home in Paramus said Tom Mastropietro no longer had a fever. The Korean War veteran had not only eaten breakfast, but even walked to the bathroom unaided.
“I was stunned but happy,” Steve said. “He looked like hell the last time I saw him. They made me think he had turned a corner.”
Four hours later, the nursing staff called again.
They had made a terrible mistake.
Tom Mastropietro had died hours earlier.
Steve would soon learn that his father and another patient were given the wrong identification bands amid the chaos that had overtaken the Paramus nursing home in recent weeks as coronavirus tore through the facility, infecting dozens of residents and staff.
Tom's body had even been taken to the other man's funeral home to be prepared for cremation the next day — Tom's wishes were to be buried next to his wife. It was a funeral home worker who noticed two medical bracelets on the body with different names.
What happened to the Mastropietro family is an egregious example of the breakdown in care and communication at New Jersey's state-run veterans homes in Paramus and Menlo Park.
“We are devastated that this error occurred and we offer our most sincere apology for the mistake in the notification of their father’s passing,” said Dr. Mark Piterski, deputy commissioner with the New Jersey Department of Military and Veterans Affairs, which oversees the homes.
COVID-19 has infected at least 25% of the two homes' 504 residents, killing at least 50 residents as of Thursday. The death toll due to COVID-19, however, may be far greater since the Department of Military and Veterans Affairs only counts those residents who tested positive for coronavirus. Since March 23, 80 residents have died at the two homes.
The virus has infected dozens of nurses and aides, causing such a significant staff shortage that Gov. Phil Murphy sent in National Guard medics and dozens of federal Veterans Affairs nurses to assist.
Staff at the homes, who have requested anonymity, said no service training was held in preparation for the pandemic, and workers initially were told not to wear masks, gowns or gloves because it would scare the residents. Some brought their own protective gear.
Since NorthJersey.com and the USA TODAY NETWORK New Jersey broke the story last week of the death toll at the Paramus home, families across the state with veterans home residents living and deceased have described a near-blackout of communications from the facilities.
Phones go unanswered. Voicemails are not returned. When families do get someone on the phone, it is often a hurried conversation with little or confusing information conveyed. The residents' best advocates — their families — have been barred from entering the homes for over a month in an effort to avoid infection. It is a story being played out at many of the more than 300 nursing homes in New Jersey.
And there may be no family that has experienced this more than the Mastropietros.
A role model father
Tom Mastropietro’s formal education ended at grade school, yet he spent his life acquiring skills like carpentry, which helped him build a small summer home on Lake Hopatcong and fashion triangular boxes to hold ceremonial flags for families of deceased veterans.
The longtime North Bergen resident was a “jack-of-all-trades,” his son Steve said. “He could do anything.”
Tom and his wife Mary raised three boys, Thomas, Michael and Stephen. Tom worked as a boiler maintenance man at Bendix aircraft in Teterboro.
But before any of that, he served in the U.S. Army for four years during the Korean War, which made him eligible to live out his days in a veterans home if need be.
When Mary died in 2016 and dementia started taking its toll on Tom, his family tried using nursing aides in his home for a few years. But Tom gradually showed signs of depression from being alone. He ate erratically and lost weight.
In early February, he moved into the New Jersey Veterans Home in Paramus. “I thought, ‘Let’s try this,’” Steve said. “If it doesn’t work out, it’s okay. It’s temporary. We can take him out.”
The veterans home lifted Tom’s spirits. He gained his weight back and was happy to be around people. His favorite activity was a modified cooking and baking class that — nurses said jokingly — he tried to take over.
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“I was initially upset about putting him in there, but after two or three weeks that was gone,” Steve said. “He was happy. He was doing better than he had been doing in a long time. And we felt like we made a great decision. But we didn’t know what was coming.”
Steve visited his father in early March, and noticed that one of the wards called Valor had been closed off to house residents with respiratory issues. “I inquired about the coronavirus and was told there were no cases,” Steve said. “Looking back I’m sure there were coronavirus cases, but no one had been tested.”
Shortly after the visit, the Paramus home barred visitors for fear of infecting residents.
Steve felt his dad was safe since he was in a room by himself and in a ward away from those suspected to have the disease. He questioned staffers if coronavirus had broken out but was told it had not.
“I made the decision to leave him there and I’m kicking myself,” Steve said.
On April 6, Steve received a call that his dad had a fever and cough, and would be tested for coronavirus. Steve kept calling for updates.
“One hour he was fine and then hours later I was called to see if they should move him to the hospital,” he said. “I had no idea of his condition. The information was not clear.”
Having seen images of overrun emergency rooms and intensive care units, Steve didn’t want his dad going to the hospital for fear of exposure.
On April 8, he was finally able to see his dad via FaceTime. “He looked like death,” Steve said. “He looked weak and was incoherent.”
The next day, the test result showed Tom had COVID-19, and he was moved to the Valor ward with other coronavirus residents.
It's here that Steve suspects the wrong identification bands were given to his father and another man, because the next day a nurse told Steve that his father had only a low-grade fever.
At 8 a.m. on April 11, Steve was given the surprising news that his father was making tremendous strides.
But Tom had already been dead for several hours.
Anthony Cassie, the funeral director of S.W. Brown & Son Funeral Home in Nutley, was called early Saturday morning by the other man's family to pick up what they believed to be his body.
Cassie said the Paramus home's staff brought him to the room and identified Tom Mastropietro as the other man. The identification band on Tom's wrist had the other man's name.
Cassie took Tom's body to his funeral home and received a call shortly after from the home saying they may have misidentified the body. Cassie examined the body and found a medical bracelet near an elbow with the name: Tom Mastropietro. It was given to Tom by his family.
At noon, the Paramus home staff called Steve and told him Tom was dead.
"They gave us hope and it was total misinformation," Steve said. "It was crushing."
Cassie eventually got in touch with Steve and emailed him photos of his father's face to get a positive identification.
"So you have one family who was told that their loved one was dead when he wasn't," Cassie said. "And you have another family who was told their father was alive when he wasn't. I've never seen anything like this."
Cassie said the other man is still alive. His family was unable to be contacted for comment.
"This should never have happened," Cassie said. "These men are veterans and this is how they're treated? They deserve better."
Kryn Westhoven, a spokesman for the Department of Military and Veterans Affairs, said policies and procedures have been in place to prevent this type of mistake.
"Unfortunately, human error combined with unprecedented circumstances created the situation in which a terrible mix-up occurred," he said in a statement.
The Paramus home has since suspended all room changes, unless deemed necessary by staff, he said.
A facility-wide inspection was immediately completed after Tom's death by the home's executives to ensure that all room assignments, bed assignments and wrist band placements were accurate.
The moves do little to comfort the Mastropietro family. Steve says he feels guilty that he didn't move his father when he suspected something was wrong in March.
On Thursday afternoon, Tom Mastropietro was laid to rest at Holy Cross Cemetery in North Arlington with a small graveside ceremony. He was buried in a family plot next to his wife Mary.
"I was holding my mom's hand when she died," Steve said. "I never had that chance with my dad. I never had the chance to say goodbye."
Follow Scott Fallon on Twitter: @newsfallon