‘It’s just sad because the whole thing was preventable’: Cloverdale man, 92, lay for days after fall before being found

Friends, acquaintances say Tom Notti’s death is a reminder to be aware and check in on one another. “This should not have happened on our street,” a neighbor said.|

Ninety-one-year-old Tom Notti lay where he’d fallen for five days before anyone realized it had been too long since they had last seen or talked to him.

One friend had taken ill. Another one’s car had broken down. A neighbor had left town for a while.

People were involved in their own lives and just didn’t notice they hadn’t heard from him.

Then a Meals on Wheels driver learned from friends that Notti had been out of touch.

She got his address and drove over. Peering through the rear window of his home, she saw him on the living-room floor, too weak and dehydrated to move.

It was a moment of grace and, even, briefly, cause for celebration that driver Shannon Holck’s well-known concern for her clients had resulted in Notti’s rescue. Everyone thought a happy ending was in sight.

But Notti became severely ill in the days that followed. He died while hospitalized in Santa Rosa on Tuesday, a week after his rescue.

His death further underscored for his grieving friends and acquaintances the vulnerability of those living alone, especially the elderly.

“It just reinforces that we need to know our neighbors, and we need to watch out for them,” said Marrianne McBride, president and chief executive officer of the nonprofit Council on Aging, which runs Meals on Wheels. “It gives us all an opportunity to think about how it could have been different, maybe. Just to be more aware helps.”

Notti had lived on his own since the death of his wife, Diane, in 2015, but was part of a close-knit group of neighbors at the Cloverdale Springs retirement community on the southwest side of town.

Though he used a walker and generally traveled the neighborhood on an electric scooter, he was still driving and able to get out of the house, which sits on an immaculate stretch of Porterfield Creek Drive, neighbors said.

Notti worked most of his life at Lockheed Martin and later ran a small cafe in Boonville with Diane. He regularly attended Monday Fundays — outdoor cocktail hours organized by neighbors during the COVID pandemic and still held weekly, usually in a neighbor’s driveway, weather permitting.

His closest family appears to have been the ex-wife of his stepson, who lives some hours away in the Sierra Foothills.

But Notti regularly interacted with friends, including the one who first alerted Holck that days had passed since they’d spoken. The friend, through Holck, said he did not want to be interviewed or have his name used in this story.

Holck has spent 16 years with the Council on Aging. Though she sometimes takes meals to peoples’ doors, she primarily delivers bulk foods to area senior centers. She also staffs weekly Drive Up/Pick Up sites that were developed during the pandemic so clients could come to one location and get a week’s worth of meals straight from the truck — without the requirement of face-to-face contact.

Holck had known Notti and his male friend “for many years” because they used to join other friends for lunch at the Cloverdale Senior Center every day. She would be there, too.

Notti, she said, “was a jokester. He was a nice guy. I see hundreds and hundreds of people, and there’s that handful of people you connect with. He was one.”

Once the distribution site was set up at King’s Valley Senior Apartments during the COVID outbreak, Notti and a friend began collecting meals for the week there, though most often, at least recently, a female friend of Notti’s picked his up when she came for her own, Holck said.

On Tuesday, Feb. 7, the woman came to the site and took food to Notti. She also spoke with him two days later by phone. Then she got sick and didn’t see him in the days after that, she told Holck. The woman, through Holck, declined to be interviewed.

She did not come to get food the next Tuesday, Feb. 14, but Notti’s friend was there, and he was deeply concerned.

Though he usually spoke with Notti every day or two, he hadn’t heard from him in days. His car was on the fritz, so he had not been to Notti’s house to check on him either, Holck said.

“The look on his face was such panic,” she said. “I saw the red flags.”

She called the office for Notti’s address, drove there and, getting no answer, walked around to the back, where she saw him. She immediately called the Cloverdale Fire Department.

She could tell Notti was weak and hoarse as he tried to talk, but through the glass Holck made out the word “neighbors” and guessed someone in the area might have a house key.

Next-door neighbor Tim Montesonti had one.

He told The Press Democrat he had only had it about two months and had asked Notti for it “just because he lives alone, and there’s no one taking care of him.”

Montesonti said Notti’s absence at last week’s neighborhood Monday Funday was noted, but neighbors “didn’t think anything of it.”

“He doesn’t always show,” said Ellen Wingenbach, who lives across the street and hosted the event. But “we’re just kicking ourselves. We should have investigated.”

Her next-door neighbor, block captain Betty Landry, said she thinks she’d have realized Notti hadn’t been out and about. But she and her husband were traveling and didn’t return until Sunday, Feb. 12. They spent the next day cleaning and storing their RV.

Like everyone, she felt awful about what had happened, particularly given how organized their immediate neighborhood is.

“We have wonderful neighbors, and that’s why we feel so bad,” Wingenbach said. “We think we’re the best neighborhood in the community, and we always say we’re the best street, and we failed.”

Firefighters arrived as Montesonti delivered the key and let them in, but it took some time for emergency medics to arrive.

Cloverdale Fire Battalion Chief Rick Blackmon, who was among those who responded, said Notti couldn’t remember how he had fallen or when. But Montesonti said his pill box indicated Notti had last taken his medications five days earlier, on the same day he was last known to have spoken to his female friend. Wingenbach also spoke with him at his door that evening.

Montesonti said he ran into the house to assure Notti that help had arrived, stroke his hair and offer comfort. “I wanted him to recognize a face,” he said later.

Notti conveyed that he had been trying to get to his cellphone to call Montesonti, but the phone was on a table, out of reach and, then out of power.

Notti, said Holck, “was so hoarse from being dehydrated. It was so sad. He could hardly talk.”

By agency protocol, she was allowed only to confirm he was receiving help and wouldn’t have been able even to offer him water, because of liability concerns.

Everyone hoped Notti would get better and return home, though word circulating among friends indicated he was ill — in isolation at Kaiser Permanente with pneumonia, at least. Montesonti said he and his husband later learned Notti had COVID and that they had become infected themselves.

On Tuesday, they learned through his daughter-in-law that Notti had died.

It’s been a distressing outcome for those who knew him but also one that has contributed to reflection about the importance of keeping tabs on one another.

“This should not have happened on our street,” Landry said. “ … From now on, we’re going to need to check up on one another.”

“It’s just sad,” Holck said, “because the whole thing was preventable, and he was just a really nice man. There’s really no one to blame. We just really need to move forward from here and do something different.”

The Meals on Wheels program, though chiefly a way to bolster the diets of food-insecure seniors, is itself based on the importance of regular check-ins with the elderly. It is considered as important for nutrition as for providing social support to isolated, homebound seniors, allowing regular contact with paid and volunteer drivers trained to keep an eye out for declining health or other noticeable problems, as well as accidents and falls.

“Isolation is a cause for failing health, and for many of these people, the driver may be the only person they see in a day or a given week,” McBride said.

Though Holck’s response to Notti’s home was not part of the home delivery program, her instincts and actions stemmed from similar experiences that McBride said occur weekly among the handful of paid drivers and about 300 volunteers who run about 60 routes a day around Sonoma County.

Holck herself, filling in for a driver who delivers to Occidental, found a woman who had fallen in her home “out in the middle of nowhere” and who just needed help getting up.

Last Friday, a driver found one of his clients trapped in a trailer with a door that would not unlock, said Denise Johnson, Council on Aging’s director of senior nutrition.

That’s why drivers aren’t allowed to leave food at the door but must follow through if a client doesn’t answer to make sure they are all right. They must have contact with the client, Johnson said.

In the Occidental case, Holck could hear the woman in the house well enough to understand she needed help. She called 911 and got rerouted to a dispatcher who knew where to tell her to find a key.

But no one was going to Notti’s home.

Holck went because “Shannon is always the one who goes above and beyond,” McBride said.

Among other things, she collects flower donations from Trader Joe’s regularly because it’s such a highlight for her clients, she says.

When she heard Notti’s friend hadn’t seen him, Holck said, “something just told me I needed to get over there because something was wrong.”

And while she knows there are certain provider-client lines she can’t cross — like offering help when someone has fallen — it takes effort.

“It’s difficult sometimes because we’re human,” Holck said. “Sometimes you want to do more.”

You can reach Staff Writer Mary Callahan (she/her) at 707-521-5249 or mary.callahan@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @MaryCallahanB.

Editor’s note: This story has been updated to correct Tom Notti’s age.

Mary Callahan

Environment and Climate Change, The Press Democrat

I am in awe of the breathtaking nature here in Sonoma County and am so grateful to live in this spectacular region we call home. I am amazed, too, by the expertise in our community and by the commitment to protecting the land, its waterways, its wildlife and its residents. My goal is to improve understanding of the issues, to find hope and to help all of us navigate the future of our environment. 

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