Wednesday, 27 February 2013 15:53

Patsy Fleckenstein with her children Jason and Naomi in their kitchen.

Fleckenstein wins Shire Brave award

by John G. Bailey

For some, becoming a caregiver is not a voluntary career choice.
    Patsy Fleckenstein of Dundalk is one of the millions of Americans whose lives are transformed when illness or accident incapacitates a loved one and tending to their basic needs and welfare becomes a necessity. 
    Lightning struck twice for Patsy Fleckenstein.
    In 1992, her adult daughter Naomi, a mother of three, was paralyzed in a car accident. Two years later, her adult son Jason, a father of one, incurred the same injury in another car accident. Since then, she has devoted her life to their care, while helping to raise her four grandchildren.
    “I’m very fortunate. I could have lost both of them,” Fleckentein said in a telephone interview.
    Unlike the vast majority of family caregivers who toil away in obscurity without recognition, Fleckenstein was one of 15 nonprofessional caregivers from around the world honored in the second annual 2013 Shire Brave Awards program. The awards recognize the courage and devotion of non-professional caregivers. Winners were selected from a pool of 550 nominations.
    Shire is a medical company based in the United Kingdom specializing in pharmaceuticals and products for people with life-altering conditions.
    Naomi and Jason are quadriplegic: they have limited use of their arms, but cannot use their hands, legs or feet. “There’s nothing wrong with their brains,” Fleckenstein was quick to point out.
    And they are still parents. While Fleckenstein ensured the physical welfare of her four grandchildren as they grew up, their disabled parents  provided discipline, helped with schoolwork and prayed with their children.
    Still, growing up in a household with two dependent parents required a variety of adjustments.
    “We didn’t want to weigh them [the grandchildren] down with responsibilities. We wanted them to be children, not caregivers,” Fleckenstein said.
    “They’re super grandchildren,” she continued.  Grown now, two grandsons and one of her granddaughters still live with their parents and grandmother.
    Beyond the home care training Fleckenstein received from the rehabilitation center in which both her children stayed after their accidents, her skills as a caregiver have been acquired through practical experience.
    Accommodating the special needs of Naomi and Jason required physical alteration and expansion of the house, which Fleckenstein has lived in for 48 years. An extension with two rooms was added and the basement was expanded. Chair lifts were installed for the new basement room and for an outside porch. A shower was made wheelchair-accessible.
    Her late husband, Victor, who worked at Bethlehem Steel, provided the material wherewithal demanded by extraordinary circumstances. “He also gave emotional support,” his wife added. He died of cancer in 2001.
    In addition, Mr. Fleckenstein’s coworkers helped. He was given time off for emergencies. They organized a dance to raise funds for a wider outside door. A collection was taken to repair his car, so he would not have to commute to work in the van used to transport his children. The United Steel Workers union helped set up a family trust fund to finance the demands of full-time caregiving.
    Attempts to obtain assistance from government sources have mostly proved futile.
    In explaining how she has persevered, Fleckenstein  said matter-of-factly, “God has helped,” she said “And a lot of hard work and determination.”