The lives we've lost

Liborio Alessi

Liborio Alessi, a Calverton man who was admitted to Peconic Bay Medical Center April 8 and tested positive for the coronavirus, died Friday, his mother said. He was 52.

Diana Ruvolo said Moloney-Sinnicksons Funeral Home would assist the family and allow a one-hour viewing in lieu of traditional services.

Ms. Ruvolo said she plans to have her son cremated so she and her daughter, Suzanne Gruenberg, can have a necklace with his ashes “to have him with us always.”

Original Story (April 15): Late in March, Diana Ruvolo of Calverton greeted her son, Liborio Alessi, in the lobby of Sayville Nursing & Rehabilitation Center. It had been a few weeks since she’d seen him — their longest time apart in years — due to current restrictions on visitors at nursing facilities.

Mr. Alessi, 52, who goes by Lee, had been admitted to the facility Feb. 12 for rehab after a hospital stay. Two massive strokes in 2016 had left him paralyzed on his right side and largely unable to speak. He had also undergone a craniotomy — a surgical procedure to remove part of the skull to expose the brain — which left him prone to seizures, the reason he’d been hospitalized.

When Ms. Ruvolo, 74, had last seen her son in Sayville, he was walking the halls with help from a therapist and a Hemi walker. “He was doing everything great,” she said. “He had made great progress and got his strength back.”

On March 28, she brought him back to her Calverton home, where, with assistance from home aides, she’d been caring for him ever since he suffered his first stroke. She always remained by his side, whether he was at a hospital, nursing home or rehab facility. Before that, Mr. Alessi, who was divorced and had been an assistant production editor for CBS, had been living with his daughter and grandson in Farmingville. 

Once he returned to Calverton, however, Mr. Alessi’s condition gradually worsened. His mother said he was “a changed person.”

He struggled to walk. He had trouble getting out of bed. She couldn’t wake him up in the morning. He had recently stopped eating solid foods.

Last Wednesday, Ms. Ruvolo finally decided to call 911. She’d been hesitant to make the call. She knew what it meant: Once admitted to the hospital, her son — who is non-verbal — would be unable to see any visitors. Having just gone through a few weeks without seeing him, she desperately hoped to avoid starting the process all over again.

“To see him go off in the ambulance, scared and alone … and he gets there and he can’t communicate,” she said.

What has followed has been a frustrating effort to obtain information and a new set of fears that sank in once Ms. Ruvolo learned that Mr. Alessi had tested positive for COVID-19, which preys upon those with underlying medical conditions. Mr. Alessi was taken by Riverhead Volunteer Ambulance Corps to Peconic Bay Medical Center, where he’s currently among dozens of other patients being treated for the coronavirus. He’s also suffering from pneumonia, a serious complication of COVID-19. 

Ms. Ruvolo said she called the ER at PBMC after the ambulance dropped him off there, following the EMTs’ advice to wait at least 30 minutes before doing so. She was told on that initial call that no one by her son’s name was in the ER.

Next, she called Peconic Bay Home Health Services, which had been helping with Mr. Alessi’s care at home.

“I called them initially for them to tell the team that my son was in the hospital so the therapist didn’t come,” Ms. Ruvolo said. “But then I also told the woman my dilemma. She said, ‘Hold on, I’m going to go over there and I’m going to find where your son is.’ ”

Ms. Ruvolo said she was told by the Home Health Services employee that her son was listed as “unidentified male.”

About 30 minutes later, she received a call from PBMC registration to begin sorting it out. That kicked off a series of calls made over the rest of the day to try to get more details about her son’s condition. 

“I realize the nurses and all are overwhelmed and I thank God for all the work they do,” she said.

Under normal circumstances, Ms. Ruvolo would have been by her son’s side, starting with the ride in the ambulance. 

At around 7 p.m., she called back and was told he wasn’t in the ER and had been taken to the second floor. A call to the nursing station there reveled he was being assessed. About two hours later, she called again and was told to call back after 10 p.m. 

“I called back at 10:30 and I did get his lovely night nurse, Rose, and she had the patience and calmed me down,” she said. “At this point I’m very frustrated. He’s non-verbal, he can’t get in touch with me and I can’t see him.”

At first, Ms. Ruvolo said, her son’s symptoms didn’t seem to align with the coronavirus. He didn’t have a cough, shortness of breath or fever.

The symptoms more seemed to mimic what he went through after his stroke, she said.

“I was always worried about the virus, especially coming out of the nursing home,” she said.

It’s unclear what led to Mr. Alessi’s strokes, his mother said, although he had undergone a heart transplant in 1998.

“He is doing well with the transplant,” she said.

After his strokes, Mr. Alessi spent most of his time in a wheelchair. He loved sports, whether it be the Yankees, Giants or Rangers. He enjoyed doing jigsaw puzzles and reading the newspaper each morning.

Ms. Ruvolo said she’s been taking her temperature each day to monitor any signs of her potential exposure to the virus. So far, she said, she’s OK.

She spoke to her son’s doctor Saturday and again Easter Sunday. On Monday afternoon, a staff member called to inform her that Mr. Alessi had been moved into the intensive care unit so he could be connected to a ventilator. He was “having too difficult a time breathing,” Ms. Ruvolo said. “They tried raising the oxygen and it wasn’t doing any good … damn virus.”

Late last week, Mr. Ruvolo’s daughter, Suzanne Gruenberg of Wading River, connected with the hospital staff to set up a FaceTime call with her brother. 

He was sleeping and couldn’t communicate. But it was at least a chance to see him.

Ms. Ruvolo doesn’t own a smartphone to set up a call of her own. So Ms. Gruenberg sent her a photo from the call.

All she can do now is pray from home.