Scranton Woman’s Quest to Save Father Aided by The Wright Center
Her story reveals how COVID-19 crisis spawned confusion, hope and a lingering heartache
For Scranton resident Amanda Vommaro and her tight-knit family, the Easter holiday celebration would have to wait.
Her 63-year-old father didn’t feel well, so her mother reluctantly cancelled the traditional family gathering at the couple’s house that Sunday. It was early 2020 and concern was growing in Northeast Pennsylvania about the spread of a new and awful virus.
That evening, Amanda, who had spent the day at her own home in the city’s Hill Section, got a worrisome phone call from her younger brother. Dad’s condition was deteriorating. Her brother whisked him to the hospital and dropped him off at the emergency room; no one, not even a family member, was allowed to accompany him inside. Abruptly, it was as if Massimo Vommaro – the tall Brazilian-Italian man, the family patriarch and sturdy construction worker, the devout Christian who doted on his pickup truck and his three grandchildren whom he delighted in taking on shopping trips to Target and the Dollar Store – was gone from them.
Amanda almost immediately began what became a frantic, frustrating and weeks-long crusade to bring him back.
Her story becomes intertwined with The Wright Center for Community Health, revealing a lot about its compassionate, patient-oriented employees. In fact – spoiler alert – Amanda’s tenacity as an advocate for her father’s healthcare was in part why she was later viewed as a prime candidate for a job opening at The Wright Center. She was hired last year as a Community Health Worker and is based at our Mid Valley Practice, where she advocates each workday on behalf of our patients.
However, the full story of Amanda and Massimo isn’t a typical narrative about overcoming adversity. The full story, like the coronavirus outbreak itself, is more complicated and dark and unfinished. It reveals how all of us, individuals and institutions, sometimes struggled but did the best we could amid an unfamiliar and fast-changing crisis.
By 11 p.m. Easter night, Amanda learned that her father had tested positive for COVID-19. A few hours later, as his lungs labored for oxygen, he was moved to the intensive care unit.
Amanda knew her father, who isn’t fluent in English, sometimes struggles to communicate with strangers. “Especially if he’s nervous,” she says. Amanda stayed in frequent contact with him by cellphone much of Monday morning, then detected that he was speaking less, mostly just texting. The day passed, then another. Dad’s ability to breathe was declining. Amanda’s mother reached out to a prayer group.
On Wednesday, hope flickered. As Amanda recalls it, the hospital notified her to say Massimo qualified to receive convalescent plasma therapy – a procedure in which the plasma of a donor who has already recovered from the virus is transfused into an ill patient in an attempt to help the individual get a boost from the antibodies and recover. After calling a couple of doctors she knows and talking about the pros and cons of the plasma procedure, Amanda got back to the hospital and gave approval to proceed, she says. She expected her father to receive the one- to two-hour plasma treatment later that day.
It didn’t happen Wednesday. Or Thursday. Or Friday.
That’s the day Amanda, admittedly, exploded at hospital staff. She wanted an explanation as to why the plasma hadn’t been administered as expected; the responses were not consistent or satisfying, she says. Meantime, her father “kept getting worse and worse,” she says. If he did answer the phone now, he sounded drained.
Amanda didn’t let on to her mother that things were going poorly. Likewise, she shielded her three young children from the details. Amanda’s husband temporarily stopped going to work, so he could care for the kids while she persistently monitored her father via FaceTime and phone calls, and scoured the internet for all the facts she could find on convalescent plasma therapy. Engrossed in her mission, she blocked out all other concerns. “At one point, I remember my husband walking into our bedroom and telling me, ‘You need to eat,’” she says. “This was in the afternoon. He told me, ‘You have only had a cup of water today. You need food.’”
Hope resurfaced on Friday evening. Amanda recalls being told by someone at the hospital that if she could find a donor who had her father’s blood type, arrangements could be made for what’s known as a directed donation; Massimo would be specified as the recipient of the plasma donation, no waiting on a list.
Amanda and her brother quickly took to social media, posting messages about their father’s urgent need for a plasma donor. “I started contacting everyone I knew and their siblings,” she says. “My brother posted. We posted absolutely everywhere, and we asked people to share it. I think that there were over 1,000 shares.”
“Saturday morning,” she says, “we had the donor.”
But Amanda’s euphoria didn’t last. During yet another disheartening and perplexing communication with a hospital employee, she heard only bad news. The policy won’t allow for a directed plasma donation. Besides, your father doesn’t qualify: over the age limit, pre-existing conditions. He’s declining. Needs to be sedated. Requires intubation. Will you tell him?
“At 7 o’clock in the morning, I had to put everything I was feeling aside and convince my dad – while calming him – that intubation was the correct procedure,” she says. “So that’s what happened. And that’s when I started fighting with the hospital.”
Amanda was fierce. She poured out her frustration about the situation on Facebook. She sought the help of powerful allies. She cold-called strangers, including a U.S. congressman and a blood center’s director. A lawyer was enlisted. She texted a hospital leader: “My dad is in critical condition and needs these antibodies to help him … I don’t know who I can turn to … I have tried everyone I can imagine … Please, if you can, give me a call. …”
Here is what Amanda did not do: She did not cry, she did not doubt. “I believe if you want something to happen, you pray on it. You put it out there and positive vibes come back,” she says. “Putting doubt out there would not be positive vibes. So I didn’t.”
Ultimately, after pleading her case to enough people, Amanda’s persistence was rewarded. She received the go-ahead for Massimo to receive a directed donation.
The donor, one of more than 25 individuals to volunteer to give plasma in response to the family’s plea for help, had been located with the assistance of Kara Seitzinger, The Wright Center’s Director of Public Affairs. Kara learned about the family’s plight and helped to spread the appeal for a viable donor via social media channels, both professional and personal, including one for a neighborhood association with which she has been active. Forty-five minutes later, a neighbor of hers responded.
The Wright Center’s Marianne Linko, an LPN nurse manager, soon joined the effort, making arrangements at partner facilities so that the would-be donor’s blood type and other eligibility criteria could quickly be evaluated.
Scranton resident Bob Cooney was, by all accounts, the perfect donor. He had the matching blood type. He had already been stricken with COVID-19, recovered and then been free of symptoms for the required number of days. Bob, a semi-retired licensed clinical social worker, also had the heart to aid a perfect stranger.
“I was thinking about what I went through with the virus,” says Bob, 69, who had been hospitalized for four days. “Even though I had a mild case, supposedly, I said I don’t want anybody else going through this. If he’s sick and he needs help, I’d be glad to do it.”
Bob even traveled to the Lehigh Valley to donate his plasma at an appropriate facility, one that was able to rapidly ship out the donation for processing and rush it back to the hospital in about two days. By then, Massimo no longer was sedated, but he continued to rely on supplemental oxygen and was, in Amanda’s words, “still not good.”
On April 24 – 12 days after Easter – Massimo received the much-awaited convalescent plasma therapy, thanks to his daughter’s insistence and the involvement of dozens of caring individuals whose input made the procedure possible.
“A few days later, he kicked the fever … and he just started to make his way better,” Amanda says.
From the hospital, where providers and staff ceaselessly performed their heroic work during surges of COVID-19 patients, Massimo eventually was transferred to a physical rehabilitation facility and then, at last, he returned home.
It was now June.
Finally able to be reunited with her father, Amanda entered the bedroom where he was resting, wrapped her arms around the man she adored, held him and, for the first time since the family’s ordeal began, she cried.
On Easter Day 2021, the one-year anniversary of her father’s battle with COVID-19, Amanda had an urge to post a social media message, expressing her thanks – her profound joy – that he survived. But she quickly reconsidered. Marking the occasion publicly seemed wrong, especially in light of what happened after her father’s recovery.
Two of Amanda’s out-of-state relatives acquired the virus late last year. Each died, leaving gaping holes in the family’s foundation. They are two of the more than 600,000 lives lost so far in the United States due to COVID-19. “It’s weird,” says Amanda, “you can’t really celebrate because you’re mourning.”
Amanda – her resilience tested, and tested again – now looks on with the rest of the world toward the day when this pandemic reaches its end.
Between now and then, the collective wait continues until things again seem safe. Until the heartache ever so slowly recedes. Until the long-awaited celebration can begin.