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“She Was All Alone. They Ripped Her From Us.”

Early on in the pandemic, Franca – a happy and loving woman with Down syndrome – got sick. Her family took her to the hospital, but after Franca was admitted, they never saw her again.

“In her casket, she was almost unrecognizable. She looked like a water balloon. They drowned her,” Franca’s sister Elena says.

TAMPA, FLORIDA — Two weeks after President Trump declared the COVID-19 pandemic a national emergency – on March 28, 2020 – Francesca “Franca” Panettone’s sister, Maria, took her to the emergency room of a Florida hospital.

Franca wasn’t able to go on her own. She was born with Down syndrome, and at 46 years old, she lived at home with Maria and their mother. Franca’s other sister, Elena, lived an hour and a half away, but spent as much time with Franca as possible.

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“Franca was our bundle of love,” Elena says. “When she got sick, we had just returned from Chicago and our uncle’s funeral.”

A few days after returning to Florida, Franca came down with a cough and fever. Maria took her to the hospital. There, a doctor examined Franca.

“The doctor said that Franca had pneumonia. It wasn’t COVID, he said,” Elena tells The Florida Standard. “He asked us to just let him do his job.”


Franca was admitted that evening. According to Elena, the doctor promised Maria that she could stay with Franca, who – due to her disability – always needed someone to look out for her and take care of her. Maria was Franca’s power of attorney and her healthcare surrogate.

But Maria had only been with Franca in the hospital room for a few minutes when the charge nurse showed up.

“You can’t stay here,” the nurse said, according to Elena.

She escorted Maria to the door. Maria protested and told the nurse what the doctor had said. The nurse said no – that would be against hospital policy.

“We were so blindsided,” Elena says. “This was before we knew anything of what was going on in the hospitals. We still trusted the medical establishment.”


Maria, Elena and their mother then spent the next few days extremely worried about Franca. They were able to reach her on the hospital phone the first couple of days.

“Franca couldn’t speak much due to her disability, but she was able to say little things like ‘Hi,’ ‘I like chocolate,’ and so on,” Elena explains.

Then, on the third day, signals did not go through to Franca’s phone. Maria called the hospital and was told that Franca had tested positive for COVID-19 and that she had been moved to a different room.

Maria asked to come back and advocate for her sister, but the hospital staff said no.

“Then, my husband had had enough,” Elena says. “He called the hospital administration and told them that he was concerned with the care that Franca was given. He said that he would arrive with our Mom.”

Twenty minutes later, Maria got a call from the hospital.

“Tell your brother-in-law that he’s not welcome here,” the hospital administrator said, according to Elena.


Between the time she was admitted on March 28 and the day she passed away, April 6, Elena’s sister Maria was able to speak with the doctor at the hospital a total of five times.

That’s how they found out that Franca had been put on a ventilator. Apparently, the medical staff had pumped her full of fluids. According to Elena, a nurse acknowledged to Maria that they “gave her a little too much fluids.”

“They intentionally neglected and mistreated Franca,” Elena says. “They overloaded her with fluids, more than six liters over a 48-hour period. That’s why she had to be put on a ventilator. They never got permission, they told us seven hours after the fact.”


On April 6, 2020, Maria received a call from the hospital. The doctor said that Franca’s heart had stopped and that she was dying.

Maria told the doctor that she had a right to be by her sister’s side, based on what she read on the hospital’s website. According to Elena, the doctor said yes – if they would agree to a DNR (Do Not Resuscitate) order.

“Maria and our Mom jumped into the car and rushed to the hospital. Once they got there, they called the nurse, who asked where they were parked. The nurse said that they had to go to a different building. At least 20 minutes went by. And then a nurse came out, clutching an iPhone. Maria and Mom said that they were allowed to see Franca,” Elena says.

“No, you’re not,” the nurse replied, according to Elena.

Instead, Franca’s sister and mother were allowed a five-minute FaceTime call with Franca.

“She was awake and communicating with blinking her eyes,” Elena said. “Maria tried to comfort her, saying, ‘You’re going to be with Jesus.’”

When five minutes had passed, Elena says, the nurse hung up the call. “There’s nothing more that can be done,” the nurse told Maria and their mother, according to Elena.

They got back in the car. Maria started it and they began to drive.

“It was then just after 1 pm. In the rearview mirror, they saw the nurse light up a cigarette. She wasn’t in a hurry to get back to Franca’s room,” Elena says.


Except for being isolated, neglected and pumped full of fluids, there are more things surrounding Franca’s death that seem very wrong, Elena says.

Maria got a call from the hospital at 1:56 pm and was told that Franca had passed away. But the medical records that the family requested immediately after Franca’s death show that she had a blood pressure and a pulse at 3:54 pm and 3:55 pm that very same day.

“How do you pronounce someone dead when they have a pulse? They said her heart stopped… but there’s no EKG,” Elena tells The Florida Standard.

Nicole Sirotek is a whistleblower nurse who has brought attention to widespread malpractice in hospitals since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic. She has examined Franca’s medical records.

“I think she was killed due to negligence and incompetence. They fluid-volume overloaded her and had to emergency stop the fluids they were giving her. The nurse noted her oxygen saturation dropping, and the doctor ordered diuretics to remove the fluid volume and improve her breathing,” Nicole Sirotek says.

“In her casket, she was almost unrecognizable. She looked like a water balloon. They drowned her,” Elena says.

The family was never told that Franca had been restrained in her bed. They later saw that in her medical records. For Elena, the thought brings up a wave of pain and despair.

“She was all alone. They ripped her from us.”