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Colchester man who survived EEE and COVID-19 alleges abuse at rehab centers

Colchester — A local man who survived Eastern equine encephalitis and then COVID-19 has returned home after more than a year in rehabilitation centers, where he alleges he was neglected, abused and forced to attempt suicide.

In August 2019, Richard Pawulski was a healthy 42-year-old man and a successful physical therapist who had just moved into his dream home in Colchester with his wife, Malgorzata, and their teenage daughter, Amellia. He was doing yard work on a summer day when he was unknowingly bitten by a mosquito carrying the deadly Eastern equine encephalitis virus, commonly known as EEE.

Pawulski started feeling flu-like symptoms on Aug. 22 and was soon taken to a hospital, where he slipped into a coma that lasted two months.

On Oct. 1, the mystery of what had made Pawulski sick was solved, but the prognosis was bleak. Pawulski had contracted the EEE virus, which had infected his brain. Doctors said he would likely never wake up. His family was preparing his funeral.

But miraculously, Pawulski did wake up. His occupational therapist called him "a phenomenal miracle."

Slowly but surely, he began to walk and talk again. But he required months of constant care. He was bedridden in hospitals and rehabilitation facilities for 16 months. When he could finally speak, he said he felt like he had "gone through hell" and "wouldn't wish this on anyone."

Pawulski was one of four people to contract the EEE virus in 2019 — and he is the only one who survived.

Just before Christmas 2020, Pawulski finally went home to Colchester and was reunited with his wife and daughter.

Though his family was overjoyed to finally have him home, his homecoming wasn't the joyous occasion they'd anticipated. 

Pawulski was supposed to be released from Riverside Health and Rehabilitation Center in East Hartford in November, just in time for Thanksgiving, but the process was halted by red tape with insurance approvals for home health care. His release was pushed back, and Richard was devastated. He'd already spent an entire year away from his family, isolated for months due to the COVID-19 pandemic — also battling and beating the coronavirus last spring — and he was ready to go home.

He wanted his life back.

As Pawulski waited for insurance approvals to clear in mid-November and early December, the odds of him coming home before Christmas became slimmer, stealing the glimmer of hope that Pawulski had left.

Then, one night, Pawulski said he found himself denied the most basic human decency — the staff charged with taking care of him at Riverside allegedly refused to change his diaper. He asked repeatedly to be changed, to not have to sit uncomfortably in a soiled diaper so that he could go to sleep. The staff, he said, mocked him for his weight and then ignored his pleas for help. They had taken away his call button, so he couldn't call for assistance, and they ordered him back to his room when he wheeled into the hall for help. From his room, he could hear them laughing.

And in that moment, Pawulski lost all hope. He said he reached into his closet and took out a wire coat hanger. He untwisted the hanger and straightened it out. He wrapped it around his neck and tried to end his life.

Pawulski was saved by a staff member who finally acknowledged his earlier cries for help and he was then transferred to Hartford Hospital. Malgorzata received a call that nearly broke her heart — she was told that her husband, so close to coming home, had attempted suicide.

Sitting in her home in December holding her husband's hand, her eyes welled with tears as her husband recalled the moment he secured the hanger around his neck.

"He just lost all hope," she said.

When Malgorzata arrived at Hartford Hospital, she decided that she would be taking him home. He would not be going back to Riverside.

"Why would we send him back to a place that made him want to die?" she said.

Pawulski was at Riverside From May to December 2020. During that time, he said he was repeatedly neglected, left to sit in soiled diapers for hours and hours, denied access to phones to talk to his family — even during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, when visitors weren't allowed. He said he was mocked by staff members who made fun of him for his weight and told him that his wife was going to leave him because of how he looked.

Pawulski said that his call button, his only way to signal that he needed help while confined to a wheelchair he can barely get into on his own, was taken away from him. His family complained that he needed to have a way to call for help, but it was never given back, they said.

Toward the end of his stay, Pawulski said that a male employee who worked the evening shift began to hit him, striking him on his arms and body. His family still has photos on their phone of large yellow bruises on his body.

The administrator at Riverside did not respond to repeated requests from The Day about Pawulski's allegations of abuse and neglect.

The Connecticut Department of Public Health is still processing a public records request filed by The Day requesting information on any instances of abuse of neglect reported at Riverside, or at Salmon Brook Rehabilitation and Nursing Center in Glastonbury, where Pawulski was before moving to Riverside.

At Salmon Brook, Pawulski said he was never physically abused, but was neglected just as much. The operator at Salmon Brook said she had no comment on his allegations of neglect or abuse.

Throughout 2020, Pawulski's wife and daughter said they were so desperate that they called police several times to ask for help and complain of neglect at both centers. Richard also called police from the rehab centers, they said.

Lt. Joshua Litwin of the East Hartford Police Department said the department had a record of one phone call made about Pawulski's care at Riverside. Litwin said that Pawulski's daughter called East Hartford police in the fall of 2020 complaining that she could not reach her father. The dispatcher told her that, regrettably, it wasn't a police issue because there was no criminal complaint and suggested that she contact the facility's management.

Litwin said that in his 20 years with the police department he has never heard of any criminal complaints involving Riverside.

The Glastonbury Police Department Chief Marshall Porter said his department had no records of any phone calls alleging abuse or neglect at Salmon Brook.

Now that Richard is home, his wife and daughter say they're facing a whole new nightmare.

The family has been, for over a month, trying desperately to get approval from the state to receive home care for Richard, who requires around the clock care to move, eat and use the bathroom. His wife said that they've been told that approvals are delayed because he left his rehabilitation program early. He was brought home early, she said, because he was so mistreated that he wanted to die.

His wife has taken extensive time off from her job at Middlesex Hospital in Middletown. Her coworkers have generously donated their paid time off to her so she can care for her husband.

But they're running out of time, and they're frustrated. They said that for them, it is almost a full time job to try to work with social workers and state officials to get approval for in-home care and SNAP benefits to help with their expenses now that they have only one income. Amellia, a 10th grader at Bacon Academy School, often has to leave her virtual classes early, or skip them altogether, to field phone calls and help her dad when he needs something.

They call social workers day after day but have gotten no answers, no relief.

"My family has never asked for help for anything," Malgorzata said through tears in December. "We have always worked hard and taken care of ourselves, and now when we need help, no one is there for us."

t.hartz@theday.com

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