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Surgeon's attempt to visit mom highlights strain at senior living complexes

When Dr. Todd Demmy stopped by Solstice Senior Living at East Amherst two weeks ago, he was doing what he always tries to do: Checking in on his 86-year-old mother.

But this time, when the thoracic surgeon at Roswell Park Comprehensive Cancer Center tried to enter his mother's room, he was turned away, the result of a ban on visitors to try to limit the spread of Covid-19.

Demmy said he understands why the senior residence in Clarence put its visitor restrictions and screening policies in place. But he said his attempt to visit his mother didn't put staff or residents at greater risk of contracting the coronavirus and he wasn't seeking special treatment as a doctor.

"I’m doing it as a son; I’m not doing it as a physician," he said in an interview. "I happen to know what they’re up against here."

The attempted entry that took place about two weeks ago highlights the strain that residents at senior complexes, their families and employees are feeling because of the coronavirus outbreak.

The Solstice Senior Living community at 6363 Transit Road has 35 staff who work with 116 residents. Solstice provides housekeeping, laundry, three meals a day, activities and medical transportation.

Solstice Executive Director Margaret Kleinmann said a local doctor was intercepted by staff as he attempted to go into his mother's apartment through the patio door to fix her computer.

Kleinmann said the doctor, who she didn't name, got agitated as she reminded him why he couldn't enter the facility but she didn't feel the incident was serious enough to warrant calling the police.

Coronavirus need to know (map image updated 5/20)

"It’s not appropriate," she told The Buffalo News. "After I escorted him off campus, and we talked on the phone, he apologized."

The facility does not offer skilled nursing care and, under normal circumstances, residents are free to leave and return, Kleinmann said.

Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo in mid-March issued an order barring visitors from New York's nursing homes to try to stop Covid-19 from spreading among this vulnerable population.

Solstice Senior Living last month set its own policy banning all visits except to receive end-of-life or medically necessary care.

All employees and others coming into the building, even paramedics and police answering 911 calls, are screened and get their temperature taken, Kleinmann said.

Workers wear masks and gloves and they have replaced communal meals with meal delivery to residents' rooms.

She said Solstice hasn't had a confirmed case of coronavirus among its staff and residents, although limited access to testing supplies means they haven't tested everyone.

The lockdown is stressful for all involved, Kleinmann said, and Solstice employees are doing what they can to keep residents who can't see their relatives safe and engaged.

Demmy said adjusting to living at Solstice was difficult for his mother even before Covid-19 hit.

Demmy moved his parents from their home in rural Pennsylvania to Solstice about two years ago after his father had a fall at home. His mother has felt lonelier since her husband died last year.

Demmy said his mother rides an adult-sized tricycle around the complex and he wanted to leave it on her patio two weeks ago so she would have it when the weather improved.

His mother lives on the first floor, so a door to her apartment opens straight to the outside. She stepped outside when she saw Demmy drop it off and asked her son to come in, he said.

As he was about to enter her room, an employee spotted him and said he needed to go to the main entrance for screening if he wanted to visit, according to Demmy.

"They have to enforce the policies and I support them," he said.

When Demmy went around to the front, Kleinmann stopped him and told him he couldn't enter.

"He never mentioned the bike. I only knew about the computer," Kleinmann said. "He said, 'I don't understand why you won't let me in. I'm here to fix the computer.'"

Asked whether he was belligerent or used profanity in their encounter, Kleinmann said Demmy used "colorful language" that didn't impress or intimidate her.

"He caused a scene. He did," she said.

Demmy said he doesn't remember cursing at Kleinmann.

Demmy said he wasn't wearing personal protective equipment when he stopped by, but he has received training in how to avoid catching or transmitting the coronavirus.

He said a quick visit entering and leaving directly through his mother's door presents less risk of exposure to the rest of the Solstice community than going through the main entrance.

But Kleinmann said Solstice doesn't allow this because someone could enter through an apartment and then make their way, without Covid-19 screening, to the rest of the campus.

"What makes him more important than everybody else having to go in the main entrance to be screened?" she said.

Demmy also said, because Solstice isn't a nursing home, residents are allowed to leave their apartments to go shopping. Kleinmann said no one is doing this and anyone who does must quarantine for 14 days.

Demmy said the efforts to keep out Covid-19 are "laudable," but Solstice eventually must replace this one-size-fits-all ban on visitors with a policy that better meets residents' mental health needs.

"I’m looking out for her safety. I certainly know what the disease can do," Demmy said.

News of the incident and Demmy's involvement made its way to The News. Kleinmann said employees weren't put at risk by the attempted entry because the doctor never made it inside the community.

Kleinmann, who had at least three follow-up conversations with Demmy, said as a physician he should know better but the incident is a learning opportunity.

"He was re-educated on what everyone’s roles are in this pandemic situation," she said.

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