Locked out: Morristown family cannot comfort 98-year-old matriarch with COVID-19 dying in nursing facility


Catherine Onuska at all times has been a powerful, feisty woman.

From elevating seven youngsters on a modest revenue, to dealing with early widowhood and dealing odds jobs into her 80s, to serving to 18 grandchildren and 30 grandkids in numerous conditions, “she would discover a strategy to someway make it work,” her daughter, Barbara Orfini of Morristown, mentioned on Friday.

However as she lays dying with COVID-19 in a Whippany nursing residence, the 98-year-old Onuska can’t remedy her household’s horrible dilemma:

CareOne of Hanover Township received’t let members of the family inside to consolation their dying matriarch, nor will they permit them to deliver her residence to die, Orfini mentioned.

“No person will give an inch,” mentioned the daughter.

The household supplied to don protecting clothes and comply with every other particular guidelines to be along with her mother, who was amongst 78 residents transferred to CareOne on Wednesday from the St. Joseph’s Senior Home. The state closed that Woodbridge facility after the coronavirus contaminated quite a few residents and employees members.

Orfini pushed again with a CareOne official over the cellphone on Thursday night time, she mentioned, however was informed curtly: “Your mother’s not the one one.”

A resident of St. Joseph’s Senior Dwelling, closed by the pandemic, is wheeled to CareOne of Hanover Township, March 25, 2020. Picture by Juli Orfini


CareOne spokesman Eric Bloom informed Morristown Inexperienced the power is adhering to visitation restrictions imposed by state and federal authorities to gradual the unfold of COVID-19, which via Friday had killed 108 folks in New Jersey and contaminated 8,825, in keeping with Gov. Phil Murphy.

A majority of the victims statewide had been over 60, and lots of had underlying well being points.

“They’re attempting to do every part they’ll below actually exhausting circumstances,” Bloom mentioned.

The state directed CareOne to take the St. Joseph’s residents, who all had been uncovered to the coronavirus. Dozens of CareOne residents had been relocated from Whippany to different CareOne venues.

CareOne enabled FaceTime video chats between Onuska and her household, and supplied a window go to, although “we’re all very nicely conscious that doesn’t take the place of really bodily saying goodbye,” Bloom mentioned.

Members of the family mentioned they had been happy usually with CareOne’s welcome and stage of take care of Onuska, particularly in contrast with the chaos and stern therapy they mentioned they encountered from nuns at St. Joseph’s once they requested to take Onuska residence.

However social distancing now could be a bitter tablet.

“I’m positive they’re treating her very nicely there, don’t get me improper,” mentioned daughter Catherine (Suzy) Pisarchik, 73, a registered nurse from Union.

“It’s simply that you just need to be along with your mom, who’s 98, and maintain her hand…I’ve tried the governor’s workplace, however you may’t get via to them. You’ll be able to’t get via to anybody.”


The household received a name from CareOne on Thursday night that Onuska had entered “terminal agitation,” a hospice time period for the ultimate phases of life, and she or he had been positioned on palliative hospice care.

Onuska’s grandchildren and nice grandchildren had been devastated, Pisarchik mentioned.

One grandson, Mark, did a short FaceTime session together with his grandmother. “She opened her eyes, he mentioned, however there was no response from her,” Pisarchik associated.

Over the cellphone, somebody heard a nurse singing Superb Grace to Onuska, and reciting the Lord’s Prayer.

And so the household waits, a grim vigil made stark by social distancing. Uncertainty even extends to the following ritual, Pisarchik mentioned, because the household ponders how one can mourn when funeral homes are imposing the governor’s ban on social gatherings.

A daughter of Sicilian immigrants, Catherine Onuska (née Micari) was raised in Southampton on Lengthy Island. She married a Czechoslovakian immigrant who served within the Coast Guard and later turned a development foreman.

HEALTHIER TIMES: Catherine Onuska, 98, with household, earlier than she examined constructive for COVID-19. Picture courtesy of Juli Orfini

They raised their youngsters in Perth Amboy. Onuska was widowed a couple of half-century in the past–her husband collapsed on his daughter Barbara’s wedding ceremony day and died on her honeymoon.

Onuska labored into her 80s at varied jobs, together with as a bookkeeper. She served on the Perth Amboy college board for 19 years, and even ran for metropolis council, Barbara Orfini mentioned.

Whereas her mom might be powerful — “an actual ache” — she adored her prolonged household and it was mutual, Orfini mentioned.

The final time members of the family touched Onuska was Wednesday, a cold, wet day. Emergency administration personnel sporting hoods, respirators and white protecting gear delivered the St. Joseph’s residents, “all tagged, like corpses” for monitoring functions, to CareOne in wheelchairs and on stretchers, Pisarchik mentioned.

“It was like a cattle drive, virtually,” she mentioned.

As Onuska’s stretcher was wheeled from a truck towards the doorway, members of the family briefly had been allowed to method her and specific love and encouragement, Pisarchik mentioned.

For practically a century, Onuska had confirmed she will roll with life’s punches. However these are disorienting occasions, and on this chilly day, shepherded by folks in white, she was confused.

Pisarchik remembers her mother’s final phrases:

“The place am I, Alaska?  How did you get right here? How did you get right here from Alaska?”


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

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