It doesn’t take much to get Mary Ann talking about her relationship with Pathways. Only four simple words. “Tell me about Jerry,” I say. She opens her mouth, and the story flows out. It’s the story of one Pathways participant, it’s Mary Ann’s story, and it's the story of so many people loving someone through the ups and downs of mental illness.
“Jerry always wanted to be a doctor,” she begins. Jerry was Mary Ann’s older brother, and he was whip-smart. After graduating top of his class in high school, he received a full scholarship to St. Jo’s to go make his dream a reality. But not long after he left home, strange things started happening. Jerry began hearing voices, experiencing paranoia and behaving in an erratic and sometimes violent way. Within a few years, he was diagnosed with Paranoid Schizophrenia, Manic Depression, and Bi-polar Disorder.
After first, Jerry’s mom took him in, but quickly moved out. “People would ask Jerry why he didn’t live with mom, and he would say, ‘Rules,’” Mary Ann recalls, laughing. Jerry’s illness also got him into lots of trouble. “He broke an elderly woman’s jaw, once,” Mary Ann says. “We spoke with her and explained that Jerry wasn’t well, so she didn’t press charges, but it was not good.”
Jerry was 22 when he first moved onto the streets, and he spent the next 35 years without permanent housing. He moved into shelters and halfway houses for brief periods, but like many people with serious mental illnesses the structure of these programs was difficult for him. He would stay for a few weeks, and then return to the streets where he was in control of the rules. “He always wore multiple layers,” Mary Ann says, “so he was pronounced dead multiple times from heat exhaustion.” Each time, emergency personnel found him on the streets and were able to get him to medical care in time.
Thirty-four years into his homelessness Pathways to Housing PA started reaching out to Jerry. “It took over a year for us to convince him to come in,” Mary Ann told me. “He was afraid of you initially. He thought you wanted to take his stuff.” Mary Ann had stayed close with her brother during his long years on the street, and she worked with Pathways to help us slowly build trust with Jerry. After a year of traveling out to the city to find him, taking him meals, and having conversations with him, Jerry finally decided he was ready to move in to an apartment with us.
Jerry loved being housed. Mary Ann brought new clothes to his apartment, and told him, “You can put these on, Jerry, but you have to shower first.” After the shower, he came down, “and he was so proud,” Mary Ann recalls. “He said, ‘I the man,’ and said ‘yes you are, Jer.’” Mary Anne remembers that he never really adjusted to how much technology had changed. “He thought the flat screen TV was broken because it was too flat,” Mary Ann says. “I said, ‘No, Jer, it’s not broken’ and I showed him how it worked. Then one time I showed up and it was gone. ‘Where’s the TV, Jer?’ I asked. ‘Broken,’ he said, and I thought, ‘Oh boy.’”
Jerry was very lucky to have a whole community looking out for him. When he was first housed, he walked every day to the neighborhood where he grew up, and would spend the day sitting on a bench out there. When his team realized what was happening, they found him an apartment right by the bench, so he didn’t have to walk so far. Everyone in the neighborhood knew him, and they’d buy him pizza and coffee and call Mary Ann if anything seemed amiss. “I always had three sets of his keys in my car, and several extra coats in case I got a call that he was underdressed or sleeping outside,” she says.
Jerry had been working with Pathways for about 5 years when his health began to deteriorate. Years of living on the streets had weakened his body, and he was a heavy drinker, as Mary Ann explains, “to drown out the voices.” He had a few significant falls while inebriated, and was not very mobile. Mary Ann together with the team made the difficult decision to put him in a nursing home. Many of the homes they toured wouldn't even consider someone with a mental illness, so they had to settle for a home that Mary Ann didn't love. In that facility, Jerry develop a bad cough that the home’s medical staff repeatedly insisted was not serious. One day, Mary Ann got a call that he was in the hospital with severe pneumonia. “I showed up at the hospital, and the doctors said his heart rate was out of control. I said, ‘I can take care of that.’ I walked into his room and said, ‘Yo Jer, what are ya doin?’ ‘Mer!’ he said. As we talked, I could see his blood pressure coming down and down.”
Mary Ann sat with Jerry every day in the hospital, running home at night for short hours of sleep before returning in the morning. The doctors did everything they could, but ultimately the infection was too strong. Jerry was moved to end of life care, and was no longer able to speak. “He’d been in hospice care for 5 days, and the nurses said to me, ‘Mary, he’s ready to die. What is he waiting for?’ I told them, ‘I don’t know,’” Mary recalls. On Jerry’s 5th day in hospice, several members of Team 1 at Pathways came up to the hospital to visit him. . The next morning, before Mary got to the hospital, Jerry slipped into a comma. “I got there, and went in to see him, and I said ‘It’s ok, Jerry. Go visit mama, and all our brothers and sisters. They’re waiting up there for you.’ But I also told him, ‘Now it’s your turn. I’ve spent all these years taking care of you. It’s your turn to look out for me now.’” Within a few hours, Jerry was gone. Mary Ann recalls, “I went out to the nurse’s station and said, ‘Now we know what he was waiting for. He was waiting for his buddies.’”
Two years have passed, but Jerry is still present in Mary Ann’s thoughts. “I miss him every day,” she says. Mary Ann has kept a close relationship with Pathways over those two years. This particular morning, she brought us stacks of books for participants to read and some money to support our programs. Last summer, she was a big supporter of our annual picnic, allowing us to offer fun field games with prizes for the participants. She gives to Pathways as a thank you, and to honor Jerry’s memory. “He would never have lived as long if it wasn’t for Pathways,” she says. “Thank you for treating him like a human being, for not giving up on him.”
Jerry had what many people living on the streets are lacking; someone who saw through his mental illness and was able to simply enjoy Jerry for who he was. At Pathways, we strive to help every participant build meaningful, supportive relationships. That said, nothing can replace the kind of relationship Mary Ann had with her brother. We are so grateful to have been part of that journey, and blessed by Mary Ann’s continued support. We know that out on the streets right now someone else’s big brother is waiting for an apartment, and we’re eager to get out there and find our next buddy.
About the Author
Becca DeWhitt is an MBA candidate at Temple University. She is passionate about creating a world where everyone's experience and perspective is valued, and sees story-telling as a powerful tool to that end.
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