An 'overwhelming' kindness Quadriplegics: Warm notes, money and a bus were sent to a Dundalk family after two of its members were almost identically paralyzed in separate car accidents.

January 09, 1998|By Ernest F. Imhoff | Ernest F. Imhoff,SUN STAFF

The kindness of strangers toward the Fleckenstein family of Dundalk, coping with the paralysis of two family members, has taken the form of warm notes, serious money and even a small bus.

A "deeply grateful" Victor and Patsy Fleckenstein received 145 messages -- each with cash -- after a Dec. 18 article in The Sun described their caregiving and close family in the face of two terribly similar tragedies. The article followed a steel workers union drive that netted cash and the lift-equipped bus.

The couple's two grown children, Naomi Shoemaker and Jason Fleckenstein, were almost identically paralyzed from the chest down when their fifth vertebrae were damaged in car accidents 29 months apart. Her accident occurred in 1992, when she was 27, and his in 1995, when he was 26.

Each was married, had children and was separated before the accidents. Shoemaker is divorced, and Jason Fleckenstein remains separated.

Patsy Fleckenstein, 51, is the main caregiver. The quadriplegics use wheelchairs, but when they are in bed, they must be turned every four hours. Other tasks for the Fleckensteins include bathing, catheterization, dressing, medication, physical therapy and food preparation.

Late last month, the family received $6,748, which is being added to the Fleckenstein Family Trust Fund, more than $61,000.

"It's overwhelming," said Shoemaker. "People who don't know us opened their hearts to us."

Many of the letters admired the family's uncomplaining courage. A woman said, "Your story gave me new insight into my problems." Another said their inspiring story was one she wouldn't recycle.

One letter writer and donor summoned up memories of a favorite boyhood vice.

Vincent Piscopo recalled how Victor Fleckenstein and he were friends at Sacred Heart of Jesus Elementary School in Highlandtown when Fleckenstein was known as "The Duke."

"I remember how much fun it was smoking cigarettes with The Duke," Piscopo wrote to the family. "When you get an opportunity, it would be nice to talk and set up a date."

Fleckenstein, 53, said he planned to do so when Piscopo returns from a trip. Their school is now Bishop John Neumann Elementary School. He confirmed sneaking smokes long ago: "It was easy: three for a nickel at the corner store."

Four-state fund drive

United Steelworkers of America set up the trust fund after the union organized a four-state drive aiming for $100,000. The fund is for when Fleckenstein, a steel worker, and his wife can no longer care for the family.

John T. Cirri, chairman of Local 2609's Fleckenstein Committee and the local's financial secretary, said his group had raised more than $16,000 in Baltimore from members of five locals and Dundalk residents.

Cirri also negotiated a couple of crucial gifts from an anonymous LTC donor. One is the bus, which might need adjustments to transport the entire family -- the couple, their two quadriplegic children in wheelchairs and their four grandchildren. The other gift is a voice-activated computer complete with training for Jason Fleckenstein and Shoemaker.

"We have never done anything like this," said Cirri. "I called on the family of our locals, the family of Dundalk residents, the family of Sparrows Point to support this. Victor was really excited and thanked us again last week.

"They're an exceptional family. If it were me, I'd be mad at the world. With them, it's love and pride and positive attitude."

The family thanked each of their 145 correspondents and donors with copies of a note written by Shoemaker. Although she and Jason Fleckenstein have almost no use of their fingers, they, as well as their parents, signed the note by determined use of arm pressure. It said in part:

"Your generosity and caring truly touched our hearts. It's uplifting to know that there are giving and compassionate people still in the world today. Our deepest hope is that God will bless you and keep your family safe."

'Touched by your story'

A retired postal worker wrote, "I was touched by your story." He said he would try to send more money later.

A woman mailed $5: "I'm a senior citizen. I just wanted to help. Love and cheers."

One couple sent $1,000 with warm regards.

A family that had experienced serious injuries in a car accident offered warm sympathy.

Patsy Fleckenstein said the last two weeks were a wonder to her.

"I find it amazing," she said. "People send not only their good wishes, but they work hard for their money, and they give it away to strangers."

Pub Date: 1/09/98

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