A tragedy compounded

For city's most vulnerable, scorching heat can be deadly public health crisis

August 08, 2006|By JULIE SCHARPER | JULIE SCHARPER,SUN REPORTER

Richard Koehlerschmidt banged on the door of the small rowhouse where two of his brothers lived. No one answered.

At 8 a.m. Thursday, on one of the hottest days of the year, the air was already sweltering on Kuper Place, a narrow street strewn with garbage and lined with boarded-up houses in Southwest Baltimore. Koehlerschmidt called for his 66-year-old brother, John, but the only response he heard was a barking dog.

He unlocked the door and found John - who was mildly mentally disabled - in a chair, naked and still. Their brother Joe, who has a more severe mental disability, sat near the body, unaware that his oldest brother was dead.

John L. Koehlerschmidt, a grocery clerk, died of a cardiovascular condition complicated by hyperthermia - extremely high body temperature - and a seizure disorder, according to a spokeswoman for the state medical examiner's office.

John Koehlerschmidt lived in a house without air conditioning and might not have known how to take care of himself or his brother in the heat.

"They probably wouldn't have realized that it was so hot," said Sister Katherine Nueslein, who met John Koehlerschmidt when he came to her for job training.

The story of last week's heat wave is more than people sweating through another hot spell in Baltimore, more than just an uncomfortable inconvenience and worries about turning on an air conditioner and running up the electric bill.

For some of the city's most vulnerable residents - the sick, the elderly, the disabled - the scorching temperatures can be a deadly public health crisis.

John Koehlerschmidt had friends, family and co-workers who cared, but even that network wasn't able to save him. He appeared disoriented the day before he died. His only companion was unable to recognize his condition, which apparently deteriorated more quickly than anyone expected.

"Somebody in this kind of situation is the kind of person that we really want to reach out to," said Dr. Joshua Sharfstein, the city's health commissioner. "It's a terrible story."

He said John Koehlerschmidt's plight hammers home the importance of checking on the elderly and disabled during periods of intense heat. "Some people really need the help of others to come to the attention of people who can help them."

At least 21 people across the state have died of heat-related causes this year, including at least seven in Baltimore. John Koehlerschmidt's death was not included in that tally, and state officials were unable yesterday to explain why it had not been counted.

Co-workers and customers at the Mount Clare Safeway, where John Koehlerschmidt packed bags and loaded groceries, remember him as a friendly man who was always eager to chat, and as someone everyone looked after. Some co-workers made him food; others washed his uniforms and fixed his glasses when they broke.

On Wednesday, Stacey Poindexter, a bakery employee, noticed that he seemed out of sorts. "He was speaking gibberish," she said.

She straightened his uniform, which was rumpled after carrying groceries in the 100 degree heat, and gave him a jug of water, which he chugged. She cautioned him to drink plenty of water and to spend time indoors cooling off - instructions that he might not have understood.

Although John Koehlerschmidt was dedicated to his job - he worked at Safeway for 16 years - he needed help to take care of some daily tasks.

Nueslein met him when he came to her for job training. He was the first graduate of St. Peter's Adult Learning Center, a program for disabled adults that Nueslein ran until she retired.

She set up a mock grocery store to teach him and even went to the Safeway to work alongside him until he got the hang of bagging. He used to walk his dog by pushing it around in a shopping cart before Nueslein showed him how to use a leash.

Yet he managed to take care of his younger brother, Joe, 63, whom people close to the family describe as so disabled that he is unable to speak.

On Friday, after hearing of John Koehlerschmidt's death, Dorothy Howard and Vernice Anderson, two former employees of St. Peter's who now work at other social service agencies, went to the house on Kuper Place to check on Joe Koehlerschmidt. The two brothers had lived in the house for only a month, after the home in which they had lived for 22 years on South Arlington Avenue was condemned.

Anderson tapped on the door and the Koehlerschmidts' dog barked, shaking the blinds and flowered curtains inside the door.

When no one answered, Howard and Anderson went to Nueslein's house. Together, the three women headed to Richard Koehlerschmidt's house in Pigtown.

Richard Koehlerschmidt, 65, who wears thick glasses that magnify his eyes, sat on the steps of his home and shook his head as he recounted the story of finding his brother John's body.

He had taken his brother Joe into his own home. He said that Joe was covered with heat rash.

He asked Nueslein for help in paying for a priest for his older brother's funeral. "I can't pay him. I ain't got no $100," he said.

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