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For family of deceased Pinellas nursing home patient, confusion and anger

Freedom Square of Seminole is at the center of a coronavirus outbreak. Thomas Minichillo may have been the first to die.

Terri Terzini-Minichillo thinks she’s being lied to.

It’s been two weeks since her husband of over half a century, Thomas Minichillo, was taken from his rehab center, at Freedom Square of Seminole, to Largo Medical Center. He tested positive for coronavirus on April 9 and died the next day.

But for four days before Minichillo was taken to the hospital, Terzini-Minichillo’s husband was abnormally silent. Typically, the couple spoke on the phone three or four times each day. She would go up to his window at the rehab center and the two would talk over the phone, Minichillo as sharp as ever, she said.

But then he wouldn’t answer her calls. Every time she or her son Brian Minichillo called nurses to ask for a check, they said Thomas Minichillo was tired and didn’t want to talk. She tried for days, but each time she was told her husband was sleeping or didn’t have the energy to talk. She tried the windows, but he had been moved.

Related: RELATED: Thirteen employees at Seminole nursing home test positive for COVID-19

Even when he had been in the hospital, he’d always taken her calls, Terzini-Minichillo said.

“I think he was unresponsive from the first day I called,” Terzini-Minichillo, 73, said. “I think they were lying to me.”

Freedom Square has been at the center of an outbreak of coronavirus, with dozens of residents and employees testing positive. Three patients have died, and on Friday the remaining 39 residents of the rehabilitation center were taken to local hospitals.

Minichillo was the first known patient to die. He was 74. Terzini-Minichillo and her son said goodbye to him in a hospital they almost weren’t allowed into, outfitted in loaned protective equipment.

Related: RELATED: Pinellas nursing home evacuated after outbreak; 3 dead from coronavirus

Health problems had plagued Minichillo for nearly three years. At their 50th wedding anniversary celebration in 2016, he couldn’t finish a dance with his wife because of leg pain. That spiraled into a number of medical issues that caused him years in and out of hospitals with chronic pneumonia, paralysis and gangrene.

Just before he was moved to Freedom Square, Minichillo had been at Morton Plant Hospital, Terzini-Minichillo said.

Freedom Square, she said, was the only rehab center that would take him.

Terzini-Minichillo said she’s angry. She doesn’t even know what room he was moved to. Freedom Square put him with a roommate when Minichillo had always been held in a private room before because of his weak health status.

Brian Minichillo, 43, said on the Saturday before his dad was taken to the hospital, he called to once again ask nurses for a status check. He asked if his dad should be taken to the hospital, because he wasn’t answering the nurses’ questions. They said he was probably just tired and would let him rest.

The next day he was transported to Largo Medical Center.

Thomas Minichillo, who died on April 10, with one of his grandchildren. [Courtesy of Terri Terzini-Minichillo]

Brian Minichillo said he read that nursing homes were asking for immunity from lawsuits. He said that worries him, and it makes him wonder if his father — a kind, quiet man — got the dignified ending he deserved.

“It makes me feel like they’re overtly trying to cover their butt to something that might be a known thing that they messed up,” he said.

Thomas Minichillo and Terzini-Minichillo met in high school in Syracuse, New York. For years they lived in San Antonio, Florida on a golf course, a dream of Minichillo’s. There, they took long rides on their golf cart after dinner each night. They also cared for their daughter Luanne, who died in 2012 from diabetes.

Terzini-Minichillo struggled after Luanne’s death. One day, her husband proposed selling their house and moving to Clearwater Beach, a short walk to the water. Every evening, the two would drive to a different beach and watch the sunset. Their favorite was Indian Rocks Beach, where a veteran would play taps.

Thomas Minichillo golfed with his sons. He could still beat them at chess. He worked for the post office his whole life. He didn’t ask for things.

“He was a wonderful man, kindest person I’ve ever known in my life,” she said.

Thomas Minichillo with his granddaughters Jordana and Annabelle and his son Brian for the Daddy/Daughter dance at Largo Central Park. [Courtesy of Terri Terzini-Minichillo]

Along with heartbreak, Terzini-Minichillo is angry. She doesn’t know what happened at Freedom Square but feels something was wrong.

And though she’s staying with her son in Belleair, every afternoon she still comes home to her condo for a few hours.

On the fridge, one of Minichillo’s rehab goals is still posted. He wanted to get in and out of bed on his own. But Terzini-Minichillo said he knew it wouldn’t be possible. Instead he would tell her his more realistic goal, the real thing he wanted.

“I just want to get in my wheelchair, I just want to go for a walk with you,” he’d say.

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