Truth falls victim in nursing home tragedy
By Nicholas Stix
web posted February 16, 2004
"Granny taken up to roof?" "Insider Says Understaffing Killed
Grandmother." So blare the headlines in the newspapers the
Daily News and The Wave, respectively.
Lillie Gardner led a quiet life, devoted to her own and other
people's kids, and to church. In death, however, she has
achieved fame, based on her usefulness for the living.
Mrs. Gardner was born in Richmond, Virginia, and came north
to New York as a teenager, where she married. While living in
Corona, Queens, the devout Christian gave birth to and raised
five sons and one daughter, worked 20 years as a teacher's aide,
caring for other people's children, and had 14 or 15
grandchildren, depending on who is reporting.
And yet, she was "useless." Nine months ago, Gardner's children
placed her in the Bishop Charles Waldo MacLean Nursing
Home in Far Rockaway, Queens. She was suffering from the
early stages of Alzheimer's Disease, and walked with a cane.
Some time after Lillie Gardner's 4 p.m. dinner on Tuesday,
February 3 -- probably about 6:30, since an alarm was then
heard that the roof door had been opened -- she made her way
to the facility's roof, where dazed and confused, she succumbed
to the cold and wind and wetness of a roof whose drains were
blocked with snow and ice, causing the water in some spots to
be several inches deep. Taylor was discovered missing during a
9:30 p.m. check of her room, and wasn't found until 12:30
Wednesday morning. Found lying in a puddle of frigid water, she
was taken to the attached facility, St. John's Episcopal Hospital,
where she could not be revived, and was pronounced dead at 1
Gardner's 50-year-old son, Sidney, the eloquent bishop of the
House of Israel Worship Temple, insisted that his mother must
have been forced to go to the roof. ""My mother did not go on
the roof on her own strength. I question whether she went up on
her own will."
Bishop Gardner maintained that his mother could not have
walked the 12 steps from her floor to the roof. Meanwhile, Mrs.
Gardner's oldest child, 52-year-old Arthur, insisted that he and
his siblings had only briefly placed their mother in a nursing home
as a temporary measure, while they arranged for a home health
aide to care for her. "It was supposed to be a temporary thing.
My mother wasn't supposed to die like that," said Arthur, as
reported by Tony Sclafani, Tamer El-Ghobashy, and Richard
Weir, in the February 6 Daily News.
Lawyer Mollins also contended to the
New York Times on Wednesday, February 4, that "the
family" (which most likely means Sidney) said that Lillie Gardner
had bruises on her arm and wrist, a contention which police
There is no evidence that anyone forced Lillie Gardner to go to
the roof, or in any way harmed her. I would believe that she
walked up the 12 steps, before I would believe her sons, who
have a credibility problem.
Lillie Gardner had already been in Bishop MacLean's for nine
months. It takes less than a month to arrange for a home health
aide; Lillie Gardner's children had permanently placed her in the
According to Newsday reporter,
Lindsay Faber, "Her son, Sidney Gardner, 50, of Staten
Island, arrived at St. John's Episcopal Hospital, South Shore, he
and his lawyer said, thinking his mother would be fine.
"'He was expecting to see his mother, and then he heard she was
gone, and he was shocked,' Melville attorney Kenneth Mollins
said. ‘They led him to believe she was fine. This is a very
suspicious situation, and it seems clear it was negligence.'"
Now, no sane or honest person, upon hearing that his 79-year-
old mother is in the hospital, expects her to be "fine." If she were
"fine," she wouldn't be in the hospital. Heck, no 79-year-old is
ever fine. Circa 1985, I looked up a then 80-year-old great
uncle. "How are you?, I asked. "I'm 80 years old," came his gruff
My attitude to Mrs. Gardner's sons Sidney and Arthur may
come across as heartless. But consider that in New York, when
a family suffers the tragic death of a member, the survivors
typically are too broken up initially to talk to any journalists. By
contrast, it appears that the first thing Bishop Sidney Gardner did
upon learning of his mother's tragic death, was to call his lawyer,
Kenneth Mollins, and formulate legal and media strategies. (The
family is suing the nursing home for wrongful death, but for
appearances' sake, waited a few days to announce the suit.) The
bishop and the lawyer then spent all of Wednesday – the day of
Lillie Gardner's death – on a scorched earth campaign, giving
interviews to every TV and print media outlet in town. Thus did
Bishop Gardner and lawyer Mollins' remarks make it into
Note that in nine months' time, Lillie Gardner's sons could not be
bothered to engage a home health aide for her – in which case
she would likely be alive today.
One thing you can infer from Lillie Gardner's life, is that she
raised her children such that they knew that it was wrong for
them to have dumped her in a nursing home. And so, they fibbed
about the matter. Lying about the circumstances of Mrs.
Gardner's incarceration, er, I mean, treatment, is also bound to
make a more favorable impression on the jury at the civil trial.
And now her sons will seek to exorcise or transfer or project
their own guilt onto the nursing home, in the form of a
And the media will get its payoff, too. Already, I'm sure, as
occurs every couple of years, city and national editors have
dispatched reporters to dig up dirt on nursing homes. Already
reporter Brian Magoolaghan, of the local newspaper, The Wave,
produced some yellow journalism for the weekly's February 6
issue. "An insider at the nursing home where an elderly woman
died of hypothermia Tuesday night said the staff made a series of
blunders that led to the woman's death – because they were
The employee also claimed that administrators were negligent, in
having Mrs. Gardner in a room near a stairwell: "You're not
supposed to have wandering patients near doors.'"
At the time of Mrs. Gardner's disappearance, three certified
nurse aides (CNAs) were on duty, responsible for 45 patients.
That was entirely sufficient staffing. A 4:45 CNA-to-patient ratio
would have been even nicer, but was not necessary, and
besides, who is going to pay for such luxurious staffing?
My basis for the above judgment, is that I am a CNA, and
worked in three different Rockaway nursing homes for a staffing
agency in 1998. (I was moonlighting, at my wife's insistence,
while I was off for the summer from teaching college.) My wife,
who is a nursing home nurse, sees things the same way. While
working for five years as a nursing home CNA, at times she had
to care, all alone, for anywhere from 22 to 45 patients. Now,
that's understaffing! (Such cases were always due to one or
more CNAs having called in sick for an 11 p.m.-7 a.m.
graveyard shift, and no one being found to cover for the
The worker's claim that the home was negligent, in placing Mrs.
Gardner near a stairwell, is also nonsense. You cannot keep
shuffling patients' rooms (which would result in lawsuits) to keep
"wanderers" away from all stairwells, and there are too many
ambulatory but confused patients for such a strategy to work,
even if it were permissible. All of the nursing homes my wife and
I are familiar with, keep their stairwell doors locked; employees
punch in a code, to open the door. Should the door somehow be
improperly opened, an alarm sounds. Some nursing homes also
use electronic bracelets called "wanderguards," which are
activated, if the patient enters an unauthorized area, or seeks to
leave the premises.
Besides, if Bishop Sidney Gardner is to be believed, his mother
was no threat to climb the stairs.
(However, according to WNBC-TV news, "Arthur Gardner …
told the New York Post that the family had placed her at the
nursing home because of her wandering. ‘They knew what her
Apparently, Sidney and Arthur forgot to get their stories straight,
and Arthur's story to the Post contradicted the story he told the
Daily News. Arthur should have left the PR campaign to his
The anonymous worker also insisted, "The staff is not happy,
and if the staff is not happy, the work can't be done."
The one believable statement the worker made, was in noting
that as the roof was mired in several inches of cold water, the
staffer who first went to check out the alarm at 6:30 p.m. likely
called out from the stairwell door, without venturing further. Mrs.
Gardner was found at a spot not visible from the door. (My
wife's theory is that the victim may have taken the elevator to the
roof. She recounted incidents where elevator repairmen disabled
the lock preventing the elevator from going to the roof, and then
forgot to re-set the lock when they were done.)
I have never heard of a happy nursing home staff; such staffs are
typically miserable. A CNA's job involves changing gigantic
diapers that are soaked in urine, feces, or both, and worn by
people who in many cases are helpless, and in other cases
choose to live like infants. In patients with severe dementia or
brain injuries, the body's muscles contracture through disuse, so
as to resemble rigor mortis. Thus does lifting a tiny, 134-pound
patient, feel like lifting a 234-pound body. Imagine trying to
manipulate and force open the contractured legs of a bed-ridden
patient, in order to change her diaper. (Or lifting her, without
help, from a geriatric "geri chair" onto a hydraulic scale, in order
to weigh her!) And to be sufficiently restrained to ensure that the
patient is not harmed, in spite of all the necessary force and
manipulation used, requires additional strength.
But not all patients are demented or helpless. Some are just
vicious, violent, or both. It is a sad testament to the low status of
CNAs, that newspaper "exposes" tell only of abusive, violent
CNAs, but never of abusive, violent patients. In my experience,
it is common for patients to abuse or assault CNAs, while the
converse is rare. This situation has gotten increasingly worse in
recent years, as nursing home administrators have found that they
can fill beds with violent, physically able psychiatric patients who
are anywhere from 20 to 50 years of age.
CNAs have one of the toughest and most despised jobs I know
of, which is probably why their rights are routinely violated. If a
CNA defends herself against a violent patient, she will almost
certainly be fired, lose her license, and be prosecuted. Yet I have
never heard of a patient being prosecuted for attacking a CNA.
And so, CNAs have developed illegal methods for dealing with
vicious patients behind closed doors. Humanitarians would decry
such methods as inhumane, but that is because they believe that
some classes of people have the right to harm certain other
classes of people with impunity, and deny that every human
being has the right to defend himself.
And then there are the non-violent crazies who constantly ring
the staff's bell at all hours of the day and night, curse the staff,
engage their relatives to harass staffers, and though they pay not
one cent for their care, initiate frivolous lawsuits against the
institutions caring for them. (Almost all patients' care is paid for
by the taxpayers.)
Note too that nursing home administrators and supervisors love
destroying CNAs' careers, by making them take the rap for
higher-ups' incompetence, and have been known to cheat CNAs
on their pay, even in union shops.
The Wave, which serves the Rockaway peninsula (Far
Rockaway, Arverne, Rockaway Beach, Rockaway Park, Belle
Harbor, Neponsit, Breezy Point, Roxbury and Broad Channel)
is a better-than-average community newspaper with excellent
coverage of school issues, due to its editor, Howard Schwach, a
recently retired public school teacher who served for 30 years in
local schools. Brian Magoolaghan only recently joined the paper.
His previous reporting in The Wave showed no glaring errors,
but consider that the Rockways are the world's nursing home
capital. In an area with 100,000 residents, at least 17 nursing homes serve a
minimum of 2,000 patients. Nowhere else does one see
such a concentration of women (mostly black West Indians and
Haitians) wearing starched, white pants and white shoes on the
street and on buses. Such ignorance about what is possibly the
largest legal enterprise in one's reporting area is inexcusable.
If all the Arthur and Sidney Gardners of the world were
successful in their lawsuits against nursing homes, the homes
would all be bankrupted and forced to close, and the Gardners
and their ilk would have to rely on the tender mercies of their
own children, once they became aged and infirm. That would be
Caring for a debilitated family member requires a Herculean
effort. For several years, my Toogood Reports editor/Publisher,
A.J. Toogood, has singlehandedly cared for his wife, Betty.
Betty developed a case of early, rapidly deteriorating
Alzheimer's Disease, like that which killed Rita Hayworth.
Eventually, the strain of taking care of Betty and running a full-
service web site caused A.J. to develop pneumonia; he almost
died. And so, he was forced last month to shut down Toogood Reports.
Of course, time was, it was understood that a family member
would sacrifice herself to take care of an invalid relative. But that
was before the age of nursing homes, taxpayer-paid health care,
and civil attorneys for whom every person or business with deep
pockets is a potential defendant, culpability be damned.
Why bother with the expense, the exhaustion, and the frustration
of caring for a helpless, demented family member, when you can
just shuffle your loved one off to strangers at a "free" institution,
come up with a cover story to make you sound like a devoted
family member without any of the work or the responsibility, and
then get rich suing the strangers, when their care proves less than
In life, Lillie Gardner deserved better. In death, she still deserves
Nicholas Stix can be reached at Add1dda@aol.com.
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