Two or three times every week, Helen Vinci visited her husband, Frank, at the Veterans Administration Hospital at Perry Point where he was being treated as an Alzheimer's patient.
Then one July day last year, Mrs. Vinci found herself without a husband.
With no warning, the hospital released Mr. Vinci to a niece. Soon after, Mrs. Vinci began receiving letters from a lawyer. Mr. Vinci was revoking her power-of-attorney, the lawyer wrote in one letter. "He does not want to have any contact with you," said another. "He is filing for a divorce," said a third.
Within days, thousands of dollars had disappeared from their joint checking account, and soon Mrs. Vinci learned that her husband's Social Security checks were being diverted from home.
For months, she didn't even know where her husband of 41 years was, tracking him to a Harford County group home only after hiring a private detective. But neither Mrs. Vinci nor her daughter, Dorothy Mulligan, has been permitted to see him. They have been told that he doesn't want to hear from them.
Mrs. Vinci believes her husband is being manipulated. "This isn't Frank," she said. "If I believed this is what Frank wanted, I'd let him go, but this isn't him."
Or is it?
PD Mrs. Vinci, a born-again Christian, paced outside the group home
last Wednesday, praying that her husband would come out to her.
Inside, Mr. Vinci, a small, frail man diagnosed as having severe dementia, shook his head and wept. At age 79, his memory about even the most basic touchstones of his life -- his own children, grandchild and siblings -- is dim. But about his wife, he ,, was insistent. He did not want her there.
"I don't care if I never see her again," he said in a faltering voice.
Mrs. Vinci, who turns 67 tomorrow, crumpled under the weight of his rejection, crying quietly all the way home to Perry Hall. "If he had just seen me," she said, "he would have known it was his Helen and come home with me."
Mrs. Vinci's plight has elicited the sympathies of a powerful ally, 2nd District Rep. Helen Delich Bentley. Even so, it seems unlikely that the situation will be resolved without a courtroom showdown. Hospital officials insist that he had improved dramatically in his eight-month stay at Perry Point, so that he was capable of making his own decisions. Mrs. Vinci, her daughter, family friends and Mr. Vinci's own doctor ridicule such a notion.
"Sometimes he didn't recognize me," Mrs. Vinci said. "He didn't even remember his own daughter that died. How could such a man be competent?"
So for now, the question remains: Does Frank Vinci want what he says he wants?
'Like my child'
The battering to Mr. Vinci's brain began many years ago in a long-forgotten gym on Howard Street where he emerged as a pretty fair lightweight. He was admired for being able to survive round after round of punches to the head until his opponent tired and faltered.
No doubt those punches damaged his brain, but the worst was yet to come: In 1968 a gas truck barreled into the rear of the dump truck Mr. Vinci was driving for the stone quarry he co-owned with his brother. The accident crushed his skull and nearly killed him. He emerged a much milder, often addled man. "He was not my husband no more," Mrs. Vinci said. "He was like my child."
Mr. Vinci became forgetful and moody and eventually incapable of working. The deterioration was progressive, accelerating after the death of his daughter, Mary Grace, in 1989. His doctors determined that he suffered from Alzheimer's disease.
Mrs. Vinci said he often didn't recognize her and gradually forgot about Mary Grace altogether. He also took to wandering. Once, in Cape May, N.J., where the couple rented a home, he suddenly disappeared. He had taken a bus to downtown Baltimore and then walked to Perry Hall.
He depended on Mrs. Vinci for everything, and friends say she was loving and patient. "She treated him like a king," said Peggy Madden, a friend in Cape May. "She did every thing for him."
But by the end of 1990, Mrs. Vinci decided she couldn't handle her husband at home anymore. The VA hospital agreed to put him on a ward with other Alzheimer's patients.
At the hospital, staff put up signs pointing the way to "Frank's room" so that he would not get lost. Items in his room -- the television set, his drawers -- were labeled so he would remember what they were.
Dr. John O. Lipkin, the hospital's chief of staff, said Mr. Vinci improved, and the staff determined that he should be sent home or to a nursing home. However, Dr. Lipkin said Mrs. Vinci did not want her husband discharged.
Mrs. Vinci disputed the assessment that her husband had improved. But she said she looked at nursing homes for him.