As health care breaks down in Massachusetts, patients die waiting for care

A photo of Tony Tsantinis hangs in a collage of other photos set up for a celebration of his life on the final day Athens Pizza in Brimfield was opened for business.

A photo of Tony Tsantinis hanging in a collage of other photos set up for a celebration of his life on the final day Athens Pizza in Brimfield, Mass., was opened for business. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)

Fans of Athens Pizza in Brimfield, Mass., learned the restaurant’s beloved owner was sick via Facebook.

“The pizza will be closed for the rest of the week,” reads the post from Nov. 30, 2021. “Unfortunately we have been exposed to Covid.”

Get well wishes poured in, but Athens Pizza will not reopen. Tony Tsantinis, 68, died at Harrington Hospital on Dec. 10.

His daughter, Rona Tsantinis-Roy is haunted by many moments from her father’s brief battle with COVID. Here’s one. As a doctor delivered the news that Tsantinis was dead, he “literally looked me in the eyes and said this didn’t have to happen,” Tsantinis-Roy recounted.

She understood that to mean that her father might have survived if he’d been transferred to a larger hospital. Typically, that’s what happens when a patient who arrives at a community hospital needs more specialized care. But with hospitals full — or close to it — across Massachusetts, transfers are harder and harder to arrange. And some patients are dying while they wait.

For Tsantinis, the hospital made two transfer attempts. As Tsantinis-Roy tells it, the first was on day four in the hospital as her father grew worse and needed intensive care. The ICU at Harrington was full, so doctors and nurses searched for an available bed at another facility. Tsantinis-Roy says they called 17 hospitals but couldn’t find an ICU that would take her dad.

Within a few days, Tsantinis-Roy learned that a bed had opened in Harrington’s ICU, and her father had been moved. But then his kidneys started to fail, and Harrington wasn’t able to provide dialysis. Hospitals say nurses who specialize in dialysis are in particularly short supply right now.

Harrington, in south central Massachusetts, again tried to transfer Tsantinis, but it was too late. A few hours before Tsantinis died, his daughter heard that Hartford Hospital would put him on its waiting list. But by then, Tsantinis was too unstable to make the journey.

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