Red tape snipped for the Whelans BACK TOGETHER

February 04, 1992|By Robert A. Erlandson

Joe Whelan's baritone, deep and rich, broke into "When Irish Eyes Are Smiling." Pleased with himself, he flashed a quick grin at his wife, Dolores.

"She's still my friend. She smiles and makes me happy," said Mr. Whelan, 77, a former Army medic and professional singer. Dolores, 80, ex-Marine and retired stenographer, blushed and said: "He's a good man. I truly love him. We've had a good marriage."

But the childless couple, both World War II veterans with various age-related ailments, weren't such happy campers last summer at the Fort Howard Veterans Affairs Medical Center at North Point.

They were sick, sad -- and separated. Growing up as family friends in northeast Baltimore and married for nearly 45 years, the Whelans faced indefinite separation for the first time.

On one floor, Mr. Whelan was bedridden. His wife, who was ambulatory, wandered the corridors of the women's section, alone and dispirited. "I don't make friends easily," she said. "I like people, but I can't make the first move.

"They called me 'the walking ghost,' " she recalled, until the day she encountered Dr. C. Alex Alexander, the hospital chief of staff, and popped the question: Why couldn't she be with her husband?

Why not, indeed? Dr. Alexander said.

And then bureaucracy smiled.

It took him less than a week to conclude that regulations about segregation of the sexes were not an insurmountable obstacle to making people happy, and he arranged for the couple to share a room.

The effect was immediate and their improvement has continued, according to hospital staff. It also is evident in the couple's appearance: Mr. Whelan is out of bed and in a wheelchair, while Mrs. Whelan discarded her bathrobe for a skirt and sweater, makeup and a ribbon in her hair.

"By quantum leaps, they've improved," Dr. Alexander said. "[Being together] enhances patient satisfaction and the quality of care."

Mrs. Whelan said, "We're as happy as we can be and I'm happier now that we're here together. The people are kind and they do their best."

Mr. Whelan recently underwent surgery on his left eye. Unlike last summer, when he was bed-bound, it only takes a word or two of encouragement to prompt a smile, a song or a poem, including one about love, luck and a four-leaf clover.

The growing role of women in society, including in the armed forces, is forcing changes in the system, and the Whelans are in the vanguard, Dr. Alexander said. All VA hospitals were built for men, but as more women seek help, changes must be made to accommodate their needs.

The half-dozen women inpatients at Fort Howard are assigned ......C special area, which is why Mrs. Whelan was separated originally from her husband. She shared a room with another woman, while he lived alone.

In the Whelans' case, the solution was relatively simple, Dr. Alexander said, rearranging their accommodations so Mrs. Whelan is near the women's bathroom. The rest took care of itself, he said.

Although Mrs. Whelan still does a lot of hall-walking, the couple pass many hours watching television, either in the day room with other patients or in their own room. Failing sight forces Mr. Whelan to listen more than watch so he depends a lot on radio, particularly talk shows.

"They are a happy couple. They're always together, and they stick together," said Reba Wilson, director of volunteer services at the 226-bed hospital.

While they are grateful for the care and friendliness at Fort Howard, the Whelans said, they miss their personal freedom. But they also acknowledged that, physically, they are unable to live by themselves.

Once physicians clear them medically, Ms. Wilson said, hospital social workers would start seeking a nursing home for them. That search could be tricky, however, she said, "because they want to stay together."

To which the Whelans added, "Amen. We've stuck it out this far together."

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