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'I held his hand and told him I love him' | Grieving family remembers dad who died after leaving MD nursing home

WUSA-TV Washington, D.C. logo WUSA-TV Washington, D.C. 4/8/2020 Bruce Leshan
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With COVID-19 affecting several area nursing homes, a grieving son and daughter are urging staffers and family members of Pleasant View Nursing Home to speak out.

Rob Holmberg and Tracy Shavell lost their 77-year-old dad -- retired D.C. firefighter Gary Holmberg -- at a Maryland nursing home that county health officials said has now seen at least 17 deaths and more than 100 infections between residents and staff. 

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"It's unbelievable, just sitting in there and watching him gasping for air," Holmberg said, remembering his final moments at the hospital with his dad. 

Unlike many families devastated by this pandemic, Holmberg and Shavell said at least they got a moment to say goodbye. 

"His eyes were open and looking at me, but he wasn't really able to respond much, because he was focusing on getting air," Shavell said. 

"I just held his hand and told him I love him," Holmberg said. "Told him he did a great job as a father and taught everybody a lot. Not to worry." 

Gary had been a patient at Pleasant View Nursing Home in Mt. Airy, a long-term-care facility hit by Maryland's worst outbreak so far. Shavell and Holmberg have now set up the Pleasant View Nursing Home Family Support Group

RELATED: Maryland nursing home confirms 17 resident deaths, 112 coronavirus cases

"Nobody really understands how it feels to lose a loved one until you do," Shavell said. 

Even before the pandemic, Pleasant View had a much below average rating at Medicare.gov.

WUSA9 reached out for comment, but no one from the nursing home has returned the calls.

Shavell said her dad was in a room with three other people, and said only curtains separated them. 

"One of the failed inspections was for spreading infectious diseases -- they got a D on it," Holmberg said. 

Gary's son and daughter are urging nursing home workers and families across the country to speak out when they see something wrong. 

"You'd be a hero for speaking up to save a life," Shavell said. 

Gov. Larry Hogan announced strike teams to respond to coronavirus outbreaks in overloaded nursing homes, the first in the nation. 

"The teams will be composed of members of the National Guard, representatives of local and state health departments, and EMS clinicians, as well as doctors and nurses from local hospital systems," according to a news release from the governor's office.

Holmberg and Shavell are angry that some people are still failing to take the pandemic seriously. 

"Once it hits home," Holmberg said, "they’ll realize how truly serious this is." 

RELATED: 'I'm not feeling good about it' | Hear from a patient inside a nursing home with positive COVID cases

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