Janine DeVito’s father Larry checked himself into the hospital on March 26 and was admitted quickly with COVID-19. Larry was wearing his favorite hat, a gray beret that Janine’s sister brought back from Italy, where Larry spent his childhood and longed to return — a hat he wore every winter for 16 years. A hat the entire family cherished. DeVito pulled into the hospital parking lot as Larry was admitted, and that was the last time she saw her father, or his beloved hat. Larry died on April 15.
“[My sister’s] first question [when dad died] was ... ‘Please tell me he wasn’t wearing the hat,’” DeVito said. “Not being able to be there, not being able to see him, and then not getting anything back ...was one of the most painful things you ever have to go through. You feel like you have nothing of him. You feel like everything was taken from you.”
New York metro area hospitals were crushed under the weight of the coronavirus pandemic this past spring. As a result, some lost patients’ belongings, leaving families without diamond lockets, Italian hats, and more, an added weight on top of not being able to be with loved ones as they died.
Family members who have tried to track down items are frustrated with hospitals’ responses — and feel a heightened sense of grief. DeVito spent months trying to get Larry’s belongings back, caring less about his wallet than his hat; she called for two months straight. She believes hospital staff didn’t look hard enough, because no one ever asked for a description of Larry’s things.
“I wrote letters, I described the things in the letters, I put a list of what I remember seeing him wear, explaining that the hat was most important. I sent a picture of him in the hat because he wore it all the time...” DeVito said. “They said sorry, they were nice about being sorry, but there was never any ... They never called me.”
DeVito eventually stopped calling New York Presbyterian.
Jael Suarez’s mother, Mary Gordon, who her grandchildren called “Weezer” thanks to a shared love of Steel Magnolias, went to Englewood Hospital in New Jersey from her rehab facility in March. Gordon was disoriented in the hospital and kept grabbing at her necklace, an intricate diamond locket gifted by Suarez’s mother-in-law. Staff, Suarez said, apparently gave the necklace and a few bracelets to the security department to keep safe.
Suarez tried to get her mother’s belongings back before she died. The hospital alerted Suarez that Gordon wasn’t doing well and invited her to the hospital — and although Suarez ultimately wasn’t able to see her mother, she did inquire about the jewelry. She got her mother’s bracelets back, and staff said they’d look for the necklace.
After her mother died, Suarez tried to get the necklace back again. A registered nurse from the ER said she had no record of the necklace being present or removed from Gordon’s neck. A technologist interviewed by the radiology department also had no recollection of the necklace either, and no one looked into video surveillance, according to Suarez. She filed a report with the Englewood Police Department, but police never got back to her with any information.
Her mother, Suarez said, had been traveling back and forth between hospitals and her rehabilitation facility for over a year, and her jewelry was so important to her she insisted on wearing everything, always.
“It Made Her Happy”
Hospitals have different protocols for what happens when a patient walks in with valuables around their necks or in their pockets. In some hospitals, a patient has to sign a waiver to keep their belongings on their person, which might be difficult for a disoriented patient without a family member there to advocate. In other hospitals, jewelry is handled differently than wallets. In others, coronavirus patients’ belongings are kept completely separate from non-COVID patients’ things. A representative at Englewood Hospital said that many more items were misplaced this spring than usual, but “that always happens when there’s a surge in patients.”
Both DeVito and Suarez are left questioning, they say, what really happened in the ICU or emergency room.
“It’s a tragedy, that [at someone’s] weakest moment, someone would take or lose [the necklace]. It’s difficult,” Suarez said. “It’s something that she treasured and I would’ve loved to give it to one of my daughters. Even if it’s gone, I’m happy that she got to wear it and it made her happy.”
Of the ten New York City hospitals contacted for this story, only one patient relations department, at North Central Bronx Hospital, said that more belongings have been lost this past spring than in previous years. A patient relations representative at Lincoln Medical Center in the Bronx simply said that in the spring, “There was property everywhere.”
The family members left behind feel rudderless in the absence of items that connect them most to their loved ones. Whether it was a hat, necklace, or something else that was lost, the items that are gone only amplify the pain of an already painful year.
“I trusted my dad’s life there,” DeVito said. “If I don’t know that they took care of his belongings, how can I trust that they took care of him? How can I not doubt that he went to the right hospital?”
DeVito said that every time she sees an older man walking down the street in a similar hat now, just six months after Larry passed away, she mistakes the man for her father.