Patient Stories: Pennies From Heaven

By Karen Perdue

The family lore about my uncle said he was taken from a small village on the Yukon River in his childhood because he was acting funny. Actually, my aunt Minnie told me he was hit over the head with a frying pan and was never the same again.  Where did he go, I always wondered?

As I have gotten older, I have begun to appreciate the value of history.  After spending many enjoyable years involved with projects that celebrated the history of Statehood in Alaska, I volunteered to lead a project on gathering the oral histories and documents that pertained to Alaska’s developing mental health services.

The journey of discovery has been fascinating, but I wasn’t prepared for the deep and powerful impact the project would have on me.  I didn’t anticipate we would learn about the people.

Our first discovery was a hand-written list of names of patients at Morningside from the 1920 U.S. Census and, shortly after that, a list of patients prepared for Delegate James Wickersham who, as far as I can see, was a tireless mental health advocate throughout his career.

Then the 1955 list.  I began to recognize family names. One day at a meeting, while on break, I called a friend over to my laptop and pulled up the list, pointed my finger at a name and said “this guy has your last name—ever hear of him?”   What was I thinking!  The reaction of my colleague was immediate and profound.  “That is my brother—and we have been looking for him for decades, said my friend tears streaming down his face.  Later, recovered and thoughtful, my friend asked two questions- when did he die and where is he buried? He and his wife plan to make a trip to Portland to the cemetery where he might find his little brother’s grave.

When Ellen and I went to the National Archives, we had a small list of names we had committed, no matter what, to look for.  On the first day, we found my friend’s brother’s information – he was admitted as a four year old child and died when he was nine.  The notes in the file are brief and found among a list of other names. These I copied and brought to my friend back in Alaska.

My uncle was nowhere to be found – never on any list or in any file as we searched. Day three – 10 hours into our day we are hurrying through files – we are running out of time. We need to go home tomorrow.   I pull a dusty file of trust accounts and there is the name of my uncle. Apparently, the government, actually Morningside Hospital, was holding $.02 or 2 cents for my uncle in an account.  Thanks god for this little detail – pennies from heaven.

I began to understand the reaction of my friend as I viewed the actual evidence on the page. I didn’t know my uncle but I met him once. He was sent to Morningside when we was a young child and then spent the rest of his life moving from one institution to another until he was in his fifties and he was discharged to Fairbanks.  I was a girl in high school when he returned and while he didn’t have what we call life skills, he was a kind and gentle soul. He wrote me a beautiful letter, with immaculate handwriting and spelling.  Shortly after that he died.

Later in life when I was involved in developmental disabilities policy, I often wondered about my uncle. Clearly by today’s standards, he would have a mild slowness and would be integrated into a mainstream classroom. He even may have been a successful student with the right early supports. We will never know.

For me now and for Ellen, a good part of this effort is to see what we can do to provide information to families who are searching for loved ones.  We will do our best to honor these folks and give families answers or the tools to get answers to these unsolved and unresolved questions.

If you have comments, we would love to hear from you.

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