State probing rooftop death at Flushing Hospital

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As winter lingered over Queens for another week, the state Department of Health launched its probe of the death of an Astoria woman on the roof of Flushing Hospital during last week's cold snap while her family considered legal action.

"We're thinking about it," said Edward Varriale, the victim's son, in an interview Tuesday night. "It's up to my father to do what he thinks is best, and right now he's not willing to deal with anything."

News of the death was a major blow to Flushing Hospital, which has been riding a wave of good publicity for the past few months since being saved from bankruptcy by Jamaica Hospital.

Many local officials and residents, however, wished to refrain from judging the medical facility until the facts surrounding the death became clear.

"We're working with the state Department of Health, who are doing their own investigation" of the incident, said Ole Pedersen, spokesman for Jamaica Hospital.

It was Pedersen who notified the media in a statement issued Jan. 18, that Mary Varriale, 75, a patient admitted to the hospital for a brain tumor Jan. 13, had been found frozen to death on the rooftop of the medical facility early Monday morning. Wind chills at the time were recorded at 34 degrees below zero.

Mary Varriale lived at 30-08 45th St. in Astoria.

Pedersen said she had last been seen by staff at 2:30 a.m. Jan. 17 and was found to be missing from her room half an hour later. She had reportedly been placed on medication and became disoriented when it wore off.

Hospital personnel searched the building and surrounding area before calling in officers from the 109th Precinct, he said.

Pedersen said a second search was performed by the police with no success, and it was a third search at daybreak Monday which resulted in the discovery of Mary Varriale's body on the roof around 8 a.m.

Police Spokesman John Giammarino said the city medical examiner determined Mary Varriale had died of exposure.

Asked if doors to the hospital's roof had alarms to signal their opening and closing, Pedersen only said the investigation encompassed the hospital's doors.

Edward Varriale said his parents had lived in Astoria for 37 years - since he was 13 years old - and that his mother spent most of her days as a housewife.

He remembered Mary Varriale as a "bingo fanatic" who loved to crochet outfits for dolls she bought and give them away to everyone, including neighborhood children, bingo partners, her doctor.

He also said that without his mother, his father Tullio has lost the person he depended on most to help him deal with his emphysema.

Tullio Varriale declined an interview.

"It's a horrible thing to contemplate," said Councilwoman Julia Harrison (D-Flushing) of Mary Varriale's death.

Whether or not the doors at Flushing Hospital were alarmed was one of Harrison's main concerns when asked for her thoughts on the tragedy.

"My apartment house has a roof door," she said. "If anyone tries to go up on the roof, an alarm goes off that shakes the whole building."

Harrison noted she was not in a position to make critical comments about Flushing Hospital because she did not know the details behind the day-to-day operations there.

Although he also questioned how Mary Varriale had access to the roof without being discovered, Adrian Joyce, chairman of Community Board 7, said her death had not changed his opinion of Flushing Hospital.

"It's a tragedy, but under the best of circumstances things can go wrong," Joyce said. "I'd like to give them the benefit of the doubt and see what comes out of all of this."

"We certainly express our sympathy to the family and obviously the goal is to never let this happen again," said Dan Andrews, spokesman for Borough President Claire Shulman.

Flushing Hospital has been praised by many residents for surviving bankruptcy to continue to deliver quality health care to the borough.

During this past summer's outbreak of the mosquito-borne West Nile virus, doctors from Flushing Hospital were hailed as being among the first physicians in the city to recognize there was a health crisis taking place in the borough.

A College Point couple who had written to the Times/Ledger in the past praising Flushing Hospital said they did not know enough about how Mary Varriale got on to the roof but still had confidence in the medical facility.

"It was a tragedy that could happen anywhere," said the mother.

The couple, who wished to remain unnamed, had rushed their daughter to Flushing Hospital when she was sick and felt she received quality care.

"Everybody we encountered knew what they were doing," the mother said.

Updated 10:25 am, October 12, 2011
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