David Brenenstuhl, a chef, veteran, fisherman, newshound, sailor, traveler, and long-time proprietor of the Hillsdale House, died Sunday after testing positive for COVID-19.
The 70-year-old longtime county resident went to Pine Haven Nursing and Rehabilitation Center in Philmont for physical rehabilitation about a month and a half ago. There, he fell ill, and was transported to Columbia Memorial Health in Hudson where he tested positive for the virus and passed away Sunday, according to his family.
As of Wednesday, 12 residents of Pine Haven had died from COVID-19, according the facility’s spokesman.
His family said they believe David would not have been infected if he was not at Pine Haven. He almost never left the house in the years before the pandemic, even having groceries delivered, they said.
Deborah, David’s estranged wife, expressed frustration over her inability to get information about his condition.
“We couldn’t get information from anyone, either from the nursing home or the hospital or anything,” she said.
Both facilities would not provide information because she was not David’s medical proxy, Deborah said.
Pine Haven, which has the capacity for 120 residents, had recorded 29 confirmed COVID-19 cases by Wednesday, according to spokesman Geoff Thompson. Nine of those residents had recovered and five are improving.
The coronavirus can rampage through nursing homes because of their close quarters and infirm populations. The federal Center for Medicare and Medicaid Services issued guidance last month directing nursing homes to stop visitations except in end-of-life situations to prevent introducing the virus. Pine Haven announced March 11 it would no longer allow residents to receive visitors unless they were moribund.
The virus was introduced March 20 by a woman entering the facility who was asymptomatic, Thompson said. She tested positive two days later but has so far survived the virus, though her tests are still coming back positive.
The virus spread rapidly from there.
Pine Haven is thoroughly following federal Centers for Disease Control (CDC) protocols about COVID-19, and “there’s extensive cleaning going on constantly,” Thompson said. There are currently 80 residents in the facility – three are in the hospital – allowing the facility to do further deep-cleaning.
One of the reasons for the number of deaths at the facility was because it also serves as a hospice, taking residents a physician has determined have less than six months to live, Thompson added.
Pine Haven was rated one out of five stars by Medicare, or “much below average.” The score is based on a nursing home’s health inspections, staffing levels and quality of resident care. Pine Haven received between seven and 10 citations during its last three health inspections – the average number of citations in New York is 5.4 – though none of the citations were for major deficiencies.
Pine Haven is not alone. Last week, New York started releasing the numbers of fatalities in all nursing homes where more than five residents had died. Pine Haven does not appear on this litany, but the state is only taking into consideration coronavirus deaths at the facilities and does not includes residents who were transported to hospitals before passing.
Jason Brenenstuhl, David’s son, said he Googled “Pine Haven” every day from his home in Pennsylvania after learning there were infections at the facility. It was his primary source of information; like his mother, he was not a medical proxy and could not get direct information from Pine Haven, he said.
Jason talked to his father about every other day while he was at Pine Haven. He tried to get the Albany Times Union delivered to his father, an avid newspaper reader.
Deborah said her husband collected coins, remembering a penny he saved from his days selling newspapers outside the Watervliet Arsenal as a boy.
David served in Vietnam aboard a Navy frigate in the South China Sea. He was in charge of media on the ship, Jason said, and would pick up film reels in Hong Kong and other ports to show the crew.
David purchased what would become Hillsdale House with his cousin when he returned from the war. David went to the Culinary Institute of America on the GI Bill in the early 1980s and expanded the establishment, which had been a bar, into a full-service restaurant.
Hillsdale House served German staples like bratwurst and Wiener schnitzel, fresh seafood – including live lobster – and had a prime rib night, Jason recalled.
“Once a year, we used to have a thing where all of his friends would bring in elk and different game, and he’d take it and cook it up and give it away,” he said.
“Cooking was his favorite,” Deborah said. “He just excelled at it. He loved it and loved being around people…The restaurant: that was his hobby, that was his love.”
David’s daughter, Christina, called her father “both old-fashioned and forward-thinking,” and said he operated Hillsdale House with pride and an uncompromising dedication to quality.
“He believed in community first and believed in the power of a handshake,” she said. “He thought of workers and customers as family, and he would not hear of a problem without thinking about helping with a solution.”
Her father loved trying new foods and traveling and knew how to order drinks in a multitude of languages, she added.
Like many Vietnam veterans, David was exposed to Agent Orange during the war and suffered from nerve damage. In his early 60s, he developed Crohn’s disease, forcing him to stop working at Hillsdale House.
Her father loved fishing and the sea, Christina said — “He said there was nothing better than the quiet of a night on a ship’s deck in the ocean.”
Christina wanted that on his urn – a single sailboat as remembrance.
The sailboat tracks across the open water, and then it’s gone.