TOMS RIVER, NJ — A few days after Larry Cohen died at Community Medical Center on April 20, a package arrived in the mail for his sister, Stephanie Hill. In it, Hill found his car keys, his smart phone and its charger, a quarter and a nickel.
There was no sign of her brother’s wallet — an item the Florida woman says she’s certain Cohen would have had with him when he checked into the hospital.
The wallet, however, wasn’t the only item that went missing. In the three weeks since Cohen, 57, died, Hill said, she’s learned her brother had a laptop, a hard drive with sensitive information, a watch and a backpack with him when he drove himself to the emergency room on March 23.
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The response she’s gotten from Community Medical Center has been inadequate, she said. After 10 days of not receiving a return call from the hospital, she began reaching out to media outlets. That finally prompted a response from staff at Community, who told her that her brother’s items had been misplaced.
Hill said she doesn’t believe they were simply misplaced.
“There’s someone roaming around that hospital stealing people’s things,” she said Monday; her brother’s overdrawn bank account, 20 days after he deposited $1,000 into the account, is why Hill is suspicions.
Detective Bob O’Neill from the Toms River Police Department is investigating, said Jillian Messina, media specialist for the police department. She could not provide details because it is an active investigation.
A spokeswoman for RWJ Barnabas, the parent corporation of Community Medical Center, confirmed in an emailed statement that the hospital is cooperating with Toms River police in the investigation of what happened to Cohen’s belongings.
“Community Medical Center has expressed sincere condolences to Stephanie Hill for the tragic death of her brother,” the emailed statement said. “During this COVID-19 pandemic, staff have done their very best to safeguard the vast amount of COVID patient belongings, however in this case it does appear that Ms. Hill’s brother’s belongings were misplaced and now are lost.”
“We are cooperating with the police and have offered to reimburse the family for the missing items. We have established a new policy for these belongings and will now separate valuables from non-valuables and secure valuables under lock and key,” the statement said.
A wallet nowhere to be found
Laurence Cohen, who lived in Toms River, was an information technology specialist. His company provided IT support to a number of clients, in particular doctors’ offices. In the days before he became ill, Cohen was working to help his clients shift their information systems to an online platform to allow them to work from home, like so many others in the midst of the coronavirus outbreak.
“All the people he works with had to be put online,” Hill said. Normally, he would have gone to their offices to see them, but the outbreak was forcing everyone to work from home.
As he worked to get his clients set up, Cohen was battling an illness. On March 23, he was having trouble breathing, Hill said, so he got into one of the two Porsches he owned and drove himself to the hospital.
Before he did so, however, he called a woman and arranged to have her check his home and feed his cat, and he sent his sister a PDF with a list of important information — his bank account numbers, the passcode for his phone, the phone number for his accountant, phone numbers for his friends.
Cohen was meticulous, she said.
By the time he arrived at Community, Cohen had a fever of 103 and couldn’t breathe, Hill said. He was placed in a regular room initially and a coronavirus test was administered. While Cohen waited for the results, he set up his laptop and hard drive and went back to work helping his clients.
Hill said she knows that only because she discovered a photo in Cohen’s phone, showing his laptop and the orange hard drive sitting on the hospital table that slides into place over the bed. There were text messages in his phone, back and forth with clients.
Four days after he was admitted, Cohen’s coronavirus test came back positive, and on March 27 he was moved to a floor that was specifically for COVID-19 patients. A day later, his condition worsened significantly and he was moved to the ICU and intubated, Hill said.
Hill said that when they removed her brother from the ventilator 17 days later, and he was not responsive.
“He had a massive stroke while he on the ventilator,” she said. She and her parents, like so many other families in this crisis, said their goodbyes through a telephone held up to his ear.
“I had to bury him long distance,” Hill said. She and her parents, and her husband and two children stayed in Florida. “We couldn’t even come to his funeral. Ten of his friends came. I had someone videotape the funeral for us.”
The nurse packaged his phone and charger, his keys, and the two coins and mailed them to Hill. “She asked me if I wanted his clothing and I said no,” she said.
It was the missing wallet that got her attention first, Hill said.
“He’s worked with hospitals for 35 years,” she said. “He would never have gone without his wallet,” which had his driver’s license, his insurance information and his credit cards.
While she tried to get answers from Community Medical Center, she contacted Cohen’s bank and made a deposit to his account. The teller told her the account was overdrawn by $450 — which was out of character for her brother.
Then she opened her brother’s phone and began going through the messages. That’s when she saw the photo of the laptop and hard drive on the hospital table. “He took the picture to show his clients he was working from his hospital bed,” she said.
That’s when she stepped up the pressure, demanding someone from the hospital call her back. The answers she got were nonanswers, she said. The hospital’s security staff told her to file a police report, which she did because she was so frustrated with the hospital’s response.
Hill said she finally got a response after contacting ABC7 in New York, which first reported the story.
A man in RWJ Barnabas’s risk management department called her, and in the conversation Hill learned the hospital had in fact taken an inventory of the items Cohen had brought with him. It was woefully inadequate, she said.
“They didn’t have a description of the backpack. They didn’t have what brand of laptop, and his keys weren’t even listed,” she said. “I asked him, ‘How do you know what you’re looking for if you don’t have a description of the items?’ “
What bothers her most is what she sees as a lack of urgency and concern on the part of Community Medical Center in investigating the incident, noting that since before her brother was admitted, the only people allowed in the hospital have been its employees.
“Family members aren’t allowed,” she said. “They told me even if I had lived around the corner I wouldn’t have been allowed in to see him.”
The overdrawn bank account is the biggest red flag, she said. Hill flew up from Florida last week to take care of her brother’s belongings and empty his home. She said she found a deposit slip for $1,000, dated the weekend before Cohen went in the hospital, in the Porsche when she picked it up from Community, where it had been in the hospital’s garage.
“I searched both cars, the glove compartments, his house,” seeking his wallet; it was nowhere to be found, Hill said. She believes it’s a stroke of luck that the Porsche was still at the hospital, and that no one recognized the distinctive Porsche key for what it was.
“He loved his Porsches,” she said. Both have since been turned over to the dealership, as he was financing the cars.
Hill said the overdrawn bank account isn’t the only concern. The hard drive her brother used had data for all of his clients used for helping them with their computer systems.
She said the family had been trying to keep Cohen’s business alive while he was in the ICU, but key information to do that was located on that hard drive. In the days since his death, trying to shift his clients to another company with whom Cohen had a rapport. It’s been a painstaking struggle.
“Every client had a code in his account that was on his server (hard drive),” Hill said. “It’s taking hours.”
Though Cohen was extremely security conscious, she said, there is a very real possibility that the information on his hard drive could expose the information of the doctors’ patients.
“What happens if one of the patients has identity theft?” Hill said. “There’s things dangling out there that I don’t know what the ramifications of them are.”
“The hospital doesn’t seem to understand that,” Hill said.
She’s hoping the Toms River police investigation will provide some answers. Her brother’s bank records have been subpoenaed, she said, and she is hopeful that someone will press for answer and take seriously her concerns that someone is stealing from patients.
“The hospital calls it misplaced, but I don’t believe it was just lost,” she said. “They’ve offered to reimburse us for the cost of the laptop but that’s not the point.”
“There’s no one allowed in the hospital except employees of hospital. Whoever took it had to work for the hospital,” she said.
He had driven his Porsche to the hospital, which meant he had his wallet because he would never have driven without his license.
“I don’t know how his things got separated,” she said. “That’s the mystery. I didn’t like the fact that they withheld the information until I badgered them.”
“I’m not blaming the hospital for my brother’s death,” she said. “I’m not doubting his care. It’s not about a medical thing, it’s about a stealing thing.”