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‘Like being in jail’ | Isolation amid pandemic takes its toll on Grand Rapids veteran

Tony Spallone plans to spend his 74th birthday alone due to COVID-19 restrictions at the Grand Rapids Home for Veterans. He also spent his 73rd birthday alone.

GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. — With his 74th birthday two weeks away, U.S. Army veteran Tony Spallone has resigned himself to spending it alone. Again.

He spends his days looking out the second-floor window of the Grand Rapids Home for Veterans, where he has lived for more than a decade.

He hasn’t left the facility since March of 2020, when coronavirus restrictions were put in place.

“I lost a year in here,’’ Spallone said. “This is like being in jail. You feel like you did something wrong.’’

Spallone is one of 135 veterans living at the facility on Monroe Avenue NE; 19 have died from COVID-19.

“I lost a lot of friends,’’ he said. 

Veterans and staff members received both rounds of COVID-19 vaccinations earlier this year; Spallone was among them.

“All my antibodies are in my system; there’s no problem,’’ he said. “I should be able to leave here without being quarantined for two weeks. It’s ridiculous.’’

Spallone says employees at the facility come and go each day; he doesn’t understand why veterans who have been vaccinated cannot do likewise.

Anne Zerbe, executive director of the Michigan Veterans’ Facility Authority, said safeguards are in place, including quarantines, because there is no definitive data regarding a vaccinated individual’s ability to transmit the virus.

“Although it is true the staff do come and go on a daily basis, staff are also required to follow strict PPE and infection control practices to reduce potential transmission risks,’’ Zerbe wrote in an email. “Resident members, while encouraged to do so, do not always adhere to this same level of precaution.’’

 Zerbe said she is hopeful existing restrictions can be eased, but says guidance has to come from state and local health departments.

“Few of us can conceive of what it would be like to live under the restrictions our members have had to endure,’’ Zerbe wrote.

Ray and Nancy Henkel have an idea. 

They have been longtime friends with Spallone and talk with him daily. 

“We’ll get on the phone, we talk every day,’’ said Ray Henkel, who served in the U.S. Marines during the Vietnam War. “It keeps him going.’’

They and another veteran, Mike Kloet, go to area restaurants and bring food back for Spallone. They have to leave it with staff at the front door.

Spallone misses going out to lunch and dinner with his friends. They also would meet at the nearby American Legion Boat and Canoe Club for roast beef dinners and other special events.

“We talk about getting out, doing that stuff again,’’ Ray Henkel said. “He’s looking forward to it.’’

Before the pandemic, Spallone would drive to area stores to pick up odds and ends for fellow veterans at the Grand Rapids Home. He’d drive to Grand Haven and use a friend’s indoor swimming pool. He would also go for walks.

Exercise now consists of walking back and forth to the bathroom and down the hall for a shower. He’s put on weight.

“He goes from his bed to his chair. From his chair to his bed. Which is only like five steps at the most,’’ Ray Henkel said. “On the night he gets to take a shower, it’s 21 steps across the hallway, 21 steps back.’’

Nancy Henkel worries about Spallone’s mental health.

“He can’t get out, even though he’s had both shots,’’ she said. “We can tell because we’ve known him for so long. . . that he’s down.’’

Human contact, such as a handshake, Spallone said, would mean the world to him. 

“Do you know what it is just to shake somebody’s hand? Just to shake their hand?’’ he asked. “That way you feel human.’’

Spallone traditionally gets together with friends for his birthday, which falls on St. Patrick’s Day. It didn’t happen last year and, he says, and looks improbable this year.

“I’m not going to live another 20 or 30 or 40 years; I’ve got two or three years left of my life,’’ he said. “I don’t want to stay in my room anymore. I want to live again.''

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