Forgotten Faces

Edited excerpts from the book Forgotten Faces by Peter W. Houck with illustrations by Peyton W. Baber (Lynchburg: Warwick House Publishing, 2000).

Lynchburg, Virginia. Most of us realize how lucky we are to live here—a city of churches, five academic institutions, a place abounding with a diversified economy and a rich heritage going back to Thomas Jefferson and John Lynch.
Many of us spin in a fast-paced, high-tech habitat, one with computers, calculators, and barcodes. We think about looking good, our families, sports, and the stock market. Appreciating what we have, many of us give back in different ways to organizations like Habitat for Humanity, the United Way, and our churches. Lynchburg is a caring place for the most part.   
Sometimes we might forget the people we see on the street corners, in a crowded waiting room, on the city buses, or at the Daily Bread soup kitchen. Their faces. What is behind these faces? Who are they?
Some are street people; others, the handicapped living in one-room apartments in the old Virginian Hotel on Church Street.* Some might be children living in a project like Greenfield, or a man sleeping in an abandoned car.
Their stoic masks reveal little. The relative simplicity of the façades belies the complexity lying beneath. They flow through an entirely different social stream. It is important for me as a medical clinician to understand their social situations so that I can do my job a little better. Having done that for the past three years, I find I have changed. Early on I felt pity and frustration. Those feelings have now given way to admiration and respect. Although these profiles are fictitious, they offer an introduction to situations that are very real.

It started with the accident in ’82. They were all high on crack as the car careened along circuitous Coffee Road. The car nicked the edge of the pavement, flipped twice before sliding down an embankment and slamming head-on into a large white oak tree. The spinal cord was severed at L-1, just below the rib cage.
Franklin’s life, as he knew it, was over. Having just graduated from E. C. Glass High School, he had landed a $6.50 per hour job at an auto parts store. Gone.
His girlfriend sympathized for an appropriate time, and then she quit visiting.
A teenager with no job, no girl, paralyzed from his navel down—a paraplegic.
Medicaid covered the rehab, but after that, life was boring, only waiting on the monthly disability check. For the next twenty years his muscles and psyche deteriorated. Back pain became worse, and he cleverly found that rotating from ER, to Medchoice, to urgent care, with a new doctor each time, helped to cover up his addiction to Percocet. “All I need is a little Percocet for my back pain this week, Doc.” Busy doctor writes the prescription and moves on to take care of a heart attack patient in the next room.
Percocet was a release from his “nerve problem” and “the blues.” Watching his old buddies over the years, some of them became addicts too, but most outgrew their recreational drug habits, found a job, a girl, or a wife.
When I first saw Franklin two years ago, he was wheelchair bound, with weakness and spasticity in his legs, but some strength too. He had abandoned his physical therapy and looked angry and depressed. He wanted Percocet.
It appeared that Franklin had five problems:
•     he was a drug addict enabled by the medical community;
•     he was getting fat and weak in the wheelchair;
•     he was depressed and angry;
•     there was no pride;
•     erectile dysfunction.

It took many visits to wean him from Percocet and to convince him that he could strengthen his legs and learn to walk again with a cane or walker. An exercise program was started at the YMCA. Viagra samples were used as an incentive to keep him returning for follow-up. (On one occasion he sold a few pills to his friends to buy a joint.) An antidepressant was tried for a while and was discontinued as the benefits of exercise kicked in. This sounds like a success story, but it is fraught with many relapses. Franklin is a forty-year-old paraplegic with no job skills or life skills. It is hard to break old entrenched habits.
. . .

Men like Franklin are potentially salvageable, but there are many hoops to jump through. As a high school graduate today, he could be admitted to vocational rehabilitation to train for a job. For example, learn computer skills so he could use his hands and his mind.
Exercise programs for handicapped persons are few and far between; Medicaid only pays for limited physical therapy. Actually, a total body exercise program with weight loss is needed more than PT. But a man like Franklin, living on a disability check, cannot afford to be a YMCA member (his limited membership was donated).
Franklin comes from a county where too many cuts in social services precluded transportation and coordination of his many services. Although he has made progress, his habits are entrenched. There are too many handicapped Franklins who bounce from one provider to the next and remain addicts until they die, angry and depressed.

Entire article available only in printed version. Lynch's Ferry is on sale at the following Lynchburg locations: Bookshop on the Avenue, Givens Books, Lynchburg Visitors Center, Old City Cemetery, Point of Honor, Market at Main, and Lynch's Ferry office at The Design Group, 1318 Church Street, Lynchburg.

Artist Peyton Winfree Baber is a native of Lynchburg and childhood friend of Peter Houck. A graduate of Stuart Hall, Agnes Scott College, and the New York School of Interior Design, Baber had an interior design career in Lynchburg that spanned forty years. Now in retirement, she excels at duplicate bridge, and enjoys painting and crafts. She has received numerous awards from the Lynchburg Art Club through the years.

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