'Average' family deals with 2 grievous wrecks Union, friends help parents aid two accident victims

December 18, 1997|By Ernest F. Imhoff | Ernest F. Imhoff,SUN STAFF

Nothing could have warned Victor and Patsy Fleckenstein about the terrible coincidence that would befall their grown daughter and son -- paralyzed almost identically in automobile accidents 29 months apart.

Yet the accidents have brought together under one roof the four adults, and four grandchildren, who see themselves as an average American family in their brick Dundalk row home, glittering these nights with hundreds of Christmas lights.

But it is a remarkable family, whose struggle has inspired United Steelworkers of America members in four states to join in a $100,000 fund-raising effort to create a trust fund -- looking to the time when their colleague, Victor, 53, and his wife, Patsy, 51, can no longer tend to the needs of their children and grandchildren.

"It's so inspiring the way the family lives and interacts with each other," said David Wilson, director of the union's four-state 8th District, who began the trust fund. "Could I do as well? I don't think so."

The story began to unfold Nov. 17, 1992, when the Fleckensteins' daughter, Naomi G. Shoemaker, then 27, a mother of three, hit the windshield when a car in which she was a front-seat passenger collided with another vehicle in Dundalk.

Her fifth vertebra was crushed, her spinal cord was damaged and she became a C-5 quadriplegic, paralyzed from the chest down.

More than two years later, on April 27,1995, it happened all over again -- this time to her brother, Jason L. Fleckenstein, then 26, a father of one. He was a front-seat passenger and hit the windshield in a Timonium crash.

The same vertebra "exploded," as the family was told; the spinal cord was damaged and, with much the same results, he was paralyzed as a C-5 quadriplegic.

Doctors at Maryland Shock Trauma Center and the old Montebello Rehabilitation Center, where sister and younger brother underwent surgery, treatment and rehabilitation, could not calculate the odds of two events like that happening in one family.

Neither had used a seat belt. Naomi says she was in the process of putting hers on; Jason says the belt in the car he was riding in was broken. Both urge today that all people use them.

"I feel I wouldn't be in this position today if I had buckled up in time," Naomi said.

The two prefer not to discuss the uninjured drivers. They said one was a friend who feels terrible about the accident, the other an acquaintance who the family heard has moved away.

Both Naomi and Jason can operate their wheelchairs, move their heads, use arms to hold things and, with the arms' weight, perform such functions as pressing buttons for TV or audio equipment. But they have no functional use of their hands and fingers and can move nothing below the chest.

Their parents are singularly devoted caregivers.

"The task given to these two people is virtually unbelieveable," said Wilson in a letter to his union members, who have raised more than $55,000 so far in the district's states of Maryland, Virginia, West Virginia and Kentucky. The union leader's wife, Delores "Dee" Wilson, a steel company worker, had prompted him to begin the self-perpetuating fund.

"A quadriplegic requires constant care," the letter says. "They require turning in bed every four hours. They need to have their food prepared. They need to be bathed, dressed, medicated and catheterized daily. They need physical therapy."

Brother and sister were separated from their spouses before the accidents. Naomi is now divorced and living with her parents and her three children, Ariel Shoemaker, 12; Victor, 10, and Sierra, almost 8. The children's father, William Shoemaker, visits them every two weeks.

Jason was separated from his wife, Cassandra, and living with his parents before the accident. He continues to live at their home. He shares joint custody with his wife of their son, Jacob, 6, who spends time after school with his father and is picked up at night by his mother after work.

All four children are what Naomi calls "AB's" -- honor-roll pupils with grades of A and B.

"The real story here is our parents," said Naomi, sitting near her brother, both in their wheelchairs. "I know lots of people with disabilities. But we are most fortunate in parents who love and care for us so much. I would like to think we're what a normal American family should be like." The children say their parents make a fine love story. Victor, a 20-year-old Navy man, fell in love with 18-year-old Patsy at a dance in her small hometown of Clifton Forge, Va. Thirty-two years after they married, they're still a team.

Victor's verdict: "Good woman."

Patsy says, "He's a sweetie."

Before tragedy first struck in 1992, the nest of Victor and Patsy had been empty for a time. Victor planned to retire after almost three decades as a millwright and, more recently, welder fabricator at Bethlehem Steel. He's still on the job.

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