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After 5 years in a nursing home,
Emerald South nursing home resident Janine Ziomek-Witek, in wheelchair, attends a rally by workers outside the nursing home to protest unsafe conditions there on June 28, 2018. A resident at Emerald South fell to his death on June 4 and another was previously beaten to death.
Janine Ziomek-Witek and husband Michael Witek, in her room at Emerald South on Sept. 11, 2018. She entered the nursing home for rehab after her lower right leg was amputated in 2014 and ended up staying there for five years
After deaths, nursing home closes
In 2016, Ruth Murray, an 82-year-old resident in Emerald South’s dementia unit, was beaten to death by another unit resident after she mistakenly wandered into his room. Last June, William Strasner, 87, also a dementia unit resident, fell from his third-floor window in an attempt to escape.
The state Department of Health issued fines of $10,000 in connection with each death. The federal government designated the 122-bed Emerald South a “special focus facility” because of the unsafe conditions.
Grand Healthcare System of New York City purchased the operations for Emerald South and the nearby Emerald North Nursing and Rehabilitation Center last fall and soon announced it would close Emerald South.
With Emerald South's 64 residents being transferred to other facilities, Ziomek-Witek says she started pushing hard to be released. It worked. She credits Dawn LaMagna, a regional nurse for Grand Healthcare, with taking up her cause.
“Basically, there was a rush to get people out the door at Emerald South. Things were going full tilt. Dawn arranged for me to have an assessment and it was determined I could be released,” Ziomek-Witek said.
But first she would have to spend a few months at Emerald North, where she received physical therapy to strengthen her arm muscles.
Jay Lawrence, a spokesman for Grand Healthcare, said he could not comment on Ziomek-Witek’s case, but said LaMagna and other staff members worked diligently to make sure the transfer of all the residents from Emerald South was accomplished in an appropriate manner.
There was some political pressure, too.
Michael Witek said he sought and received help from the staff of Assemblywoman Crystal D. Peoples-Stokes, whose district includes the Delaware Avenue nursing homes, in making sure his wife was properly placed.
Legal right to leave
Residents in nursing homes have the legal right to leave, but if the nursing home determines a return to the community is unfeasible, home officials must list the reasons in the resident’s medical records and explain the reasoning to the resident, according to federal regulations.
The regulations also require nursing homes to refer the resident to local support services if the individual decides to leave, even if a discharge is not supported by the facility. As for residents deemed able to return to the community, the nursing homes must develop a discharge plan to ensure a safe transition.
Lindsay Heckler, the supervising attorney at the Center for Elder Law and Justice in Buffalo, says there are some individuals in nursing homes who do not belong in them and want to return to the community. She bases this belief on individuals who have sought legal assistance from the center.
“While not every person who lives in a nursing home may be appropriate to return to the community setting, every person should be afforded the opportunity to do so,” Heckler said.
Heckler said the first step is for a resident to notify the nursing home’s social worker. “If you feel that the nursing home is not doing enough to facilitate a discharge to the community, our office is available to assist in referrals to available resources and provides free legal representation in some cases,” Heckler said.
Capps, the coordinator for the Open Doors program, said nursing home residents can obtain assistance by going to the New York Association on Independent Living and scrolling to Open Doors or by calling her at 836-0822, ext. 203.
‘Fight for your rights’
Sitting in the privacy of her tiny apartment, Ziomek-Witek says her experience has taught her that persistence is a necessary quality for success in being discharged into a suitable place to live in the community.
“You have to fight for your rights and if you have to go to a nursing home for rehabilitation, make sure it is a good one,” she said.
Her apartment includes a bathroom and a second room that doubles as her bedroom and living area. To one side is a small refrigerator and a microwave. Twice a day, she said, Meal On Wheels delivers food.
And while she is living independently, she says aides from the Fallon Health Weinberg Managed Long-Term Care program look in on her a couple times a day.
Yet Ziomek-Witek is not completely satisfied.
The next step in her journey, she says, is to live under the same roof with her 58-year-old husband. Michael Witek says he is working on getting permission for his wife to live with him at Walden Park Senior Complex on Buffalo’s East Side.
“You have to be 55. Janine is 53 but because she is disabled there’s a good chance she can get in here,” Witek said. “I’ve been talking with the manager and it will be a slow process.”
But both husband and wife say they are hopeful.
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