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'A simple soul' lost to COVID-19 leaves lessons of kindness, joy
The State Journal-Register - 11/21/2020
Nov. 20--Alan Dalton died alone at HSHS St. John's Hospital in Springfield on Oct. 5.
The 53-year-old had been rushed to the hospital 11 days before with breathing problems and a sore throat. In the emergency room, Dalton tested positive for COVID-19.
Dalton, who was developmentally delayed and had the mental capacity of a 7-year-old according to several of his family members, had his ups and downs in the hospital. He had rallied and was scheduled to go back to Brother James Court, a men's residential facility on the city's far northeast side.
The night before his scheduled release, Dalton ran into more breathing problems and suffered a panic attack, said Stephen Parfitt, Dalton's cousin. Dalton pulled out a catheter and was despondent.
"He was tired of being there," Parfitt said. "He had had enough."
Dalton woke up the next morning and ate breakfast. When hospital personnel came by his room a short while later, he was lying on the floor, unresponsive, according to family members.
In Dalton, who was the 50th death in Sangamon County from COVID-19, Parfitt and others remember a sweet and kind man who taught them important lessons in life.
Dalton's death was also a reminder of the fragility of life, how the joys being together as a family Dalton had moved back to Springfield a little over a year ago and was joined by his brother, Tony Stephens, at Brother James Court can quickly be extinguished.
"He was a simple soul," said Dalton's aunt, Becky Millet.
Separation is one of the crueler fates of the coronavirus, Parfitt admitted. He shuddered thinking about his cousin, without any family visits, surrounded by the whir and technology of a hospital.
Parfitt said he was sad that he wouldn't be able to see Dalton's "big, silly, lovingly beautiful smile" again.
"What's worse than losing Alan," he said, "is losing him without being able to see him, without him being able to see us, without being able to speak to him one last time."
The separation pained Denise Davis Fisher, Dalton's cousin, too. The hospital nurses passed messages along, so one night Davis Fisher asked a nurse to whisper "Denise loves you" into Dalton's ear.
"The next time I talked to the nurse," Davis Fisher said, "she said, 'He just smiled so big.'
"I needed to hear that."
Patty Dalton, Alan and Tony's mother, was developmentally delayed herself, Parfitt explained.
"Patty was very childlike and full of joy," he said. "Alan was just joy, joy from deep within him. That's the same way Patty was. She was a human smile. She was sweet and kind and soft-spoken and joyful and funny.
"Alan and Patty were very similar."
Everyone back then, Parfitt said, tried to sugarcoat things about family.
Special needs people were often hidden away then by family or warehoused, Millet pointed out.
"That's so incredibly sad," Millet said, "because they have in some ways more to offer the world than someone who's a Harvard graduate."
Patty married, Millet said, and had Alan and Tony, but as a little boy, Alan lived with a number of family members, including Davis Fisher.
Alan spent a good part of his childhood at a developmental home in Flanagan, Ill., about 100 miles northeast of Springfield. After being released at 18, Alan went to live with his mother, who had re-married, in Carthage, Mo.
Because he had been a ward of the state, Millet explained, Alan's own mother and stepfather had to formally adopt him.
He lived with his mother and stepfather before meeting another special needs person, Holly Ward, through a work training program, Parfitt said. The two married and moved to nearby Joplin, Mo.
"She really mothered him," Parfitt said of Holly. "She was a little bit higher functioning, and she could be bossy and cantankerous. They would bicker, but they were attached to each other. They were other halves of each other's worlds.
"They were inseparable."
Davis Fisher said that Holly was a caretaker for her cousin, which is what he needed.
"They found," she said, "the most unique and entertaining love."
After her husband passed away, Patty Dalton moved to Springfield in 2007 where she died of breast cancer in 2010.
Alan and Holly stayed in Missouri, but about a year ago, Holly died of ovarian cancer after a short illness.
"It blindsided Alan, obviously," Parfitt said.
The couple had been married 25 years, he said.
Alan lived for a short time with Holly's mother, Donna Ward, before moving to Brother James Court.
"My mom," Parfitt said, "went through the wringer to get him up here. He got settled in and he was very comfortable and we were happy as hell to see him."
Different, not disabled
Davis Fisher and Parfitt said being around and sometimes living with family members, like Alan, Tony and Patty gave them insight into a whole different world.
Davis Fisher and Parfitt went on to work at United Cerebral Palsy Land of Lincoln, a nonprofit that served people with developmental disabilities. It was acquired by Sparc last year.
"We don't see people as disabled," Davis Fisher said. "We just see people who are different than us.
"Our aunt (Patty) was developmentally delayed and we showed her the same respect we would show anyone."
In her nephew, Alan, Becky Millet found "the purest, kindest guy, beyond measure."
"He just had a propensity," Millet added, "to be able to bring everybody a calmness about them.
"If you want to find a truly kind people, look to the special needs. They will teach you so much. They will teach you patience when you have none. They'll reach out in kindness when you're on your last straw."
Parfitt worried about COVID-19 infiltrating a place like Brother James Court.
"I think just not understanding what a germ would be in their world, what touching a doorknob might do to them, what the consequences of shaking hands might be ... dealing with that as an adult is just almost incomprehensible," he said. "We've changed our lives so much in these last several months. Alan and Tony can't grasp the ramifications of shaking someone's hand. It just doesn't occur to them in that way."
Dr. Vidya Sundareshan, professor of internal medicine and co-chief of infectious disease at the SIU School of Medicine, said with persons with development disabilities the susceptibility to the virus comes more from matters of practicality.
"The risk is not being able to follow all the protocols and procedures we have in place," Sundareshan said. "At Brother James Court, a lot of times people may not keep their masks on. You have to explain to them why it's important to keep it on.
"The living conditions and also the adherence to preventative measures we know work, they are at an increased risk because of that."
'A life of purpose'
Millet said her nephew, Alan, was in his heyday living at Brother James Court, which houses 89 men with development disabilities ages 18 and up.
Brother James Court was founded in 1975 by the Franciscan Brothers of the Holy Cross and goes back to 1928 when they started St. James Trade School. It closed in 1972.
According to Sangamon County spokesman Jeff Wilhite, three residents of Brother James Court, including Alan, have died from COVID-19. The virus has infected 74 residents and 16 employees, though none since Oct. 14.
Sonia Bartels, an administrator with Brother James Court, told The State Journal-Register earlier that it was working with the Sangamon County Health Department, following IDPH and CDC guidelines and monitoring staff and residents according to the guidelines.
Before the virus hit, the brothers enjoyed movie nights with popcorn and bicycle rides, Millet said. Alan worked in the kitchen and he had plenty of friends, she added.
"All the time Tony and Alan were out there it seemed like (the staff) was very competent and very caring.," Parfitt said. "It didn't feel at all like a place where they got warehoused. It really felt like a community environment out there."
Tony has since moved to Serenity House, a group home in Lincoln.
Brother James Court management, Millet said, kept in touch throughout Alan's illness.
"They were concerned," Millet said. "They're sad. They really loved those guys, each and every one of them and Alan loved them."
St. John's staff was "generous with me and my questions and our worrying," Davis Fisher said.
The hospital put a sitter in Alan's room, she said, so when he woke up he wouldn't be disoriented.
"It seemed," Parfitt said, "like they were on top of not only caring for him, but caring about him."
When the hospital called to tell her that Alan had passed away, Davis Fisher said the nurse was in tears.
In Alan's obituary, his family had simple requests: "Please be kind to others, live a life of purpose and protect yourself and those around you by wearing face masks."
"It's such a small thing, to put on your mask," Davis Fisher said. "I lost someone who was incredible to me before I could hug him and tell him I loved him.
"Right now, we're talking about him, letting people know he's amazing and he's going to make a difference."
Contact Steven Spearie at 622-1788, firstname.lastname@example.org or twitter.com/@StevenSpearie.
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