Brain Injury Trauma | Cover Story | Salt Lake City | Salt Lake City Weekly

Brain Injury Trauma 

If a brain injury doesn't kill you, the neglect and loneliness that follow just might.

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In November 2008, a homeless Burke was struggling to negotiate Salt Lake City’s icy streets. She went to the Brain Injury Association for help finding a wheeled walker. Valerio told her even through Medicaid, it would cost $124—something she could not afford.

Valerio and Roskos were shocked by her deterioration in the several years since they’d seen her. They collected food for her to take with her many bags back to the shelter.

“She was pretty desperate,” Valerio says. She came to the BIA on an almost-daily basis, wrapped up in four layers of clothing, a scarf around her head and neck, gloves on her hands and dragging all her bags. Tired and hunched over, she also struggled with incontinence, so Valerio bought her adult diapers. That way, Valerio says, when she got a bed too far from the restroom in the shelter, she wouldn’t panic.

“She wasn’t getting anywhere, she wasn’t getting anything resolved and she was getting sicker on the streets,” Valerio said. “No one should be treated this way.”

Burke would disappear for a few days, only to call Valerio on several occasions and tell her she was looking after her friend, an ailing Vietnam veteran named Anthony Johnson, in Ogden. On Christmas Eve, Burke went to the shelter at St. Anne’s Center in Ogden, before being booted out early the next morning.

That Christmas morning, Burke, wearing a blue coat and thin, pink pants drenched from the snow, went into the Ogden Marriott. She was shivering so violently and had such high blood sugar that an EMT called to the hotel was uncertain of his readings. Burke told a Standard-Examiner reporter doing a Christmas Day ride-along with the ambulance crew, “People need to realize that the homeless are very much feeling like second-class citizens.” She said she felt neglected, but she didn’t fit into people’s idea of a homeless person.

“Margaret was so alone,” Valerio says.

Burke was able to settle her debts by Jan. 9, to the point that she was able to move into a 518-square- foot apartment in the Lost Creek complex on the corner of State Street and Vine in Murray. Perry and a local LDS ward youth group helped her empty out her two storage units and moved all of her boxes in, stacking them from floor to ceiling along the walls, then piling them in library-like aisles through the rooms.

Burke did not have time to open them.

Six weeks after she had moved in, Independent Living Center’s Clara was on the phone with her when Burke said her legs were oozing fluid. “I knew it was congestive heart failure. I knew it instantly,” Clara says. She urged Burke to call her doctor but, afraid of getting moved to a nursing home, Burke refused.

On Feb. 24, Lost Creek apartments’ management office called Perry. Burke had collapsed in the laundry room with a heart attack, sister Henningfeld says. Paramedics got a pulse and rushed her to the hospital across the street, but she never regained consciousness.

A friend Burke had given her medical power of attorney to approved turning off her life support.

On Feb. 27, Perry picked up the veteran, Johnson, in Ogden and drove him to the hospital in Murray. Perry and Johnson, standing on either side of Burke’s bed, held her hands. In tears and near collapse, Johnson told Burke he loved her. Perry did the same and “wished her a happy journey.”

Three minutes after the machines were turned off, Burke took her last breath. She died on Feb. 27, at 3:35 p.m., age 60.

After all the sadness Burke had endured in her quest to find a place in life, without her children, finally, Perry says, “She’s at home.”

Four months after Burke’s death, Ruiz experienced a kind of rebirth. On June 11, he graduated from Copper Hills with a 3.8 GPA.

In the run-up to graduation, he’d been excited about adulthood and living on his own. Then, his mood changed. He asked his parents if they planned to kick him out. When they said no, he said, “What if I have to live with you forever? Dad wants to travel when he retires.”

“Then you can go with us,” his mother replied.

His father took him to the E Center and took photographs of him in cap and gown on the steps. No friends came over to congratulate him. “There again, it was just kind of him [on his own],” Gonzalez says. When Ruiz’s parents and relatives saw him in line, many were in tears.

Ruiz could hear his aunt screaming his name and turned to look at his family. “They were the only people who knew,” he says. “Everybody else doubted me … Grabbing my diploma was the best feeling I ever had.”

click to enlarge nathan_gonzalez_upclose.jpg
On Sept. 15, Ruiz started classes at Salt Lake Community College, hoping one day to specialize in repairing Nissan cars.

The Sunday night after he had started college, Ruiz wheeled out the garbage cans to the curb of the West Jordan house his family had rented two months earlier. A 19-year-old friend of his neighbors demanded his iPod and then punched Ruiz so hard in the back of his head he fell to the ground, unconscious. Ruiz went to the hospital with his second brain injury, this time a concussion. The youth was released with only a citation.

When Ruiz graduated, Brooke Gonzalez was excited for him to be able to leave behind the cruelty of high school. Finally, she thought, he would make friends. But after she started part-time again at the BIA in May, her work brought a harsh awakening. Every new client she meets, she pushes through to their social life, asking about friends. The reply is always the same: “I don’t have anyone. My family is sick of me.”

Brooke Gonzalez wipes away tears as she says that she and her husband are “very, very scared. We thought his adult years would be kinder.”

By mid-October, Ruiz, an undeniable fighter, had shaken off the concussion-fog that consumed him post-attack. On his own, he put an ad on the Internet—“struggling college student seeks work”—and now has two clients whose houses and yards he cleans.

In the warm, late-September sun, Ruiz shows off his new car and displays a shy, winning smile, but it doesn’t quite hide his pain. “I would like my old friends back,” he says. “It’s hard to leave someone.”

He and O’Neill talk on the phone occasionally. He knows Ruiz “is still hurting. Nathan doesn’t have stable friends, a girlfriend. He’s kind of stuck.” O’Neill hopes they can rediscover their friendship. He misses his friend and the innocent, carefree life they had before Ruiz’s accident.

Yet despite everything Ruiz has been through, O’Neill says his childhood friend is still “the same genuine person I met in third grade. I can tell he’s still there.”%uFFFD

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