MAHOPAC, N.Y. - Longtime Mahopac resident Mario Forte Jr. had just celebrated one year of being colon-cancer-free in March when he suddenly started to feel a little ill. Within two weeks, the 68-year-old father of five was dead—another victim of COVID-19.
As of Friday, April 23, Putnam County had seen 900 confirmed cases of the disease, and 38 deaths, according to the Department of Health.
“He wasn’t feeling so great that last weekend of March,” said his daughter, Sabrina Ereditario. “But it was just a lack of energy. It didn’t really alarm us. Then, the last Sunday in March we took his temperature, and he had a really high fever. It would come down and then jump back up.”
Forte went for a test but was already hospitalized at Putnam Hospital Center by the time the results came back. He was positive.
Even though he had exhibited symptoms of COVID-19, the family still was unsure if he had it.
“It crossed our mind, but we didn’t think it could be,” Ereditario said. “It went from fever to [labored] breathing and coughing. We thought it might be the regular type of flu.”
Up to that point, Ereditario said, her dad had been relatively healthy—other than his cancer. And he had survived that.
The coronavirus was a different fight. “He spent one night in the hospital and they said he had to be put on a ventilator and then they put him in an induced coma so his lungs wouldn’t have to work so hard and he could heal,” she said.
Forte spent about two and a half days at Putnam Hospital Center before the decision was made to transfer him to Danbury Hospital.
Ereditario said Putnam sent many patients to Danbury who they thought were good candidates for recovery.
But visitation by family members was impossible at both hospitals.
“Before the ventilator was the last time that we could speak with him; after that we couldn’t see or talk to him,” Ereditario said. “It was very frustrating. He was there alone. We got calls every day from the hospital and they would give us updates on how he was doing. He seemed to be improving. Oxygen saturation was good.”
On Day 9 on the ventilator, he spiked a fever again, but they got it down.
“And then on the 11th day he spiked again and this time they couldn’t control it,” she said. “He had a bacterial infection and his temperature went up to 108 and he couldn’t sustain that.”
Before retirement, Forte had worked for the Transit Authority in New York City, but he had been a Mahopac resident for 36 years and all five of his children are graduates of MHS.
Overcoming cancer was not Forte’s only amazing accomplishment. In recent years, he had put on a lot of weight. He was determined to lose it and joined a gym. He lost 125 pounds.
“He went to Gold’s Gym in Carmel,” she said. “They called him Super Mario! It was a complete transformation. He would get to the gym early and enter their stationary bike competitions. He was well-liked there. He overcame so many things.”
Ereditario said her dad loved to watch the Yankees and he took his granddaughter to many games.
“He also taught my son to fix and build things,” she added. “He could fix anything. He was good with his hands. He was amazing. And he passed that on to my husband.”
Because of social distancing requirements, only 10 people were allowed to attend the graveside service. That’s exactly the number of immediate family members. However, word got out of Forte’s passing and friends just had to pay their final respects.
“People came all the way from Long Island and New Jersey,” Ereditario said. “They were double-parked for as far as the eye could see but didn’t get out of their cars. I can’t image the crowd if people had really been allowed [to attend].”
Ereditario said she has no idea or theory on how her father contracted the disease. She said he had been shopping at a local grocery store a few times, but other than that had pretty much been quarantined. She said no other family members have felt sick or exhibited symptoms in the weeks since his passing.
“I wish he could have gotten the burial and funeral that he deserved,” Ereditario said. “He was my hero.”
Casualty at the Nursing Home
Lillian Lehr spent the last part of her life in a nursing home—many of which throughout New York State have been decimated by the coronavirus. She was 90 years old when she passed and was suffering from Alzheimer’s disease.
“[The nursing home] was treating her as if she had it,” said her son, Corey Lehr, a Mahopac resident. “They never actually tested her for it because it’s an uncomfortable test.”
Lehr said his mother had been sick for about a week and had developed a few COVID-19-type symptoms.
“But then she stabilized, and she was awake,” he said. “But then her fever went back up to 103.”
Lehr said she was never placed on a ventilator and there were no plans to send her to a hospital.
“They were treating her as though she had it, but she was on a DNR (do not resuscitate)” he said.
Like so many other families of coronavirus patients, Lillian’s family was not allowed to see her. The nursing home had established a strict no-visitor policy early in the pandemic.
“I hadn’t seen her since February,” he said. “I didn’t even want to go near the place for fear of what I might bring in.”
Lehr said the nursing home arranged for his sister to Facetime with their mom, but all she could see was Lillian sleeping and gasping for breath.
“It’s a bum rap,” Lehr said about having been unable to visit his mother. “It’s the worst.”
Lehr said his sister lives in Eastchester and he has a brother in Beacon, but he had been Lillian’s primary caregiver for the past 25 years until it got to the point where he could no longer do it, and she had to be sent to the nursing home.
“I visited her once a week until the crisis hit,” he said. “She’s been a long-term patient since February 2019 on Medicaid. When I would visit her, I would always pretend it was the last time I was going to see her.
“It’s been sucky for us, but I am happy she lived until 90,” he added. “I have friends who have lost family members who were a lot younger.”
Lehr said the nursing home staff is unsure of how Lillian caught the disease.
“The employees there are checked and sent home,” he said. “How did it get into the place? I don’t know.”
New York State health officials concede that 3,448 residents of nursing homes or adult-care facilities are known to have died from the coronavirus, or nearly 25 percent of all deaths in New York. More than 2,000 of the total are in the five New York City boroughs, and officials acknowledge that the real numbers are almost certainly higher.
Lehr said his mom was very artistic, played bridge, bowled in mixed leagues, and loved crossword puzzles and word games. She was a former volunteer and officer with the Association for the Help of the Mentally Handicapped in Co-op City.
Lehr said that while he hasn’t had the opportunity to speak with administrators at the nursing home, a nurse told him over the phone that the death certificate lays out the cause of death as “acute respiratory arrest due to pneumonia and presumed COVID-19.”
“It’s frustrating,” Lehr said. “We’re not sure what we are supposed to do next.”
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