Sick and Tired

A tragic accident, underpaid, overworked personal-care attendants, and one pissed-off patient

As Marco tells it, he was so eager to turn over a new leaf that after fueling his car for the trip, he forgot to pay. Realizing his mistake, he pulled off Interstate 39 near Mendota, Illinois, about 100 miles from the Windy City, with the intention of calling the station and rectifying the situation. He never made it to a phone.

Passing what he remembers as a Lincoln Town Car in the deceleration lane, Marco moved over toward the exit ramp. At that moment he realized the other car was still beside him. He jerked at the wheel hard, hoping to avoid a collision, but lost control of the Nissan, which skidded sideways as if on a sheet of ice, then tumbled side over side. Marco's body flew through the windshield.

The next thing he can recall is lying on the roadside with the cars whizzing past. It was difficult to breathe. A man, probably a passing motorist who had stopped to help, knelt over him. "I couldn't feel any pain, but I wanted to wait until he looked at me before I moved," Marco recalls. As the stranger began to grasp what had transpired, his face ballooned with panic. "Hurry up, he's still alive!" the man screamed. Lying there, Marco thought to himself, "What? Am I gonna die here? Is this it?

James Jukes

"Every time that mark passes by, it's like a cold slap in the face," he says of the accident's anniversary. "It's not a good day to be around people--to say the least."

Marco's immediate reaction to losing the use of his legs and hands was denial. "Jeez, they don't know me," he recalls thinking of the doctors and nurses. "I'm gonna move again." But as the weeks passed--first in an intensive-care unit in Chicago, then in a nearby rehab facility--the permanence of his disability began to sink in.

Just a few weeks after the accident, his wife traveled west as planned. When she finally returned to visit, in January of the following year, the two had a confrontation about whether she was sleeping with other men. Marco was served with divorce papers while he sat in a Chicago nursing home. It was a second devastating blow: Stacy had been the only family he had. When Marco was two, his father abandoned his mother and their only son; he died a few years later. When Marco was ten, his mother committed suicide. His maternal grandparents raised him, but his grandmother died when he was a teenager, and he hasn't communicated with his grandfather for years. "He was psycho," Marco says. "He was nuts. That's where I got all the negativity that I have. I watched him beat my mom many times when I was seven, eight, nine years old. No good. No good at all."

A year after the accident, alone and broke, Marco was hit by the realization that he was fated to spend the rest of his days in a nursing home, waiting to die. He resolved to kill himself. "I was just waiting for the chance to OD," he recounts. "I was just waiting to die. I came pretty damn close, but when it came down to it, and all the nonsense was in front of me, I just couldn't do that." What ultimately stopped him, he says, was the thought that some people are even worse off than he.

In August 1997 Marco moved to Minnesota, hoping to enroll in an assisted-living program he'd learned about while doing some research on treatment. But he ended up at another nursing home instead. He has been stuck in a pitiless game of institutional Ping-Pong ever since, bouncing from his apartment to nursing homes to psychiatric wards to group homes and back again.

He subsists on a $512 federal disability check, $80 in state aid, and $32 worth of food stamps. Of that, $124 goes to pay his subsidized rent. He has been diagnosed as clinically depressed and labeled a drug addict. "Ever since I broke my neck, and this is the God's honest truth, I've had no life," Marco says.

Some days Marco still thinks about killing himself. He takes antidepressants to stave off temptation. "I can't kill myself," he reasons. "It's just not right. Even without the religious beliefs, you just can't do that. It's not normal." Ultimately, in Marco's eyes, if God had wanted him to die, his life would have ended along the side of I-39 five years ago. On good days, he thinks there must be something left for him to contribute, some mark to make. On bad days the accident seems like punishment, payback for years of bad behavior. "The odds catch up to you sooner or later. It just so happens that that day my body wasn't full of drugs and I wasn't drinking and I wasn't speeding," he reflects. "There's a lot of regrets I have before the accident. A lot of regrets. But there's gotta be a reason that I'm here."


Wearing a white Mickey Mouse sweatshirt and a scowl, Mike Marco is buzzing along 79th Street in the shadow of the Mall of America. There is no sidewalk; Marco and his wheelchair are competing for road space during the afternoon rush hour, bumping along at five miles an hour en route to the bus station located inside the Mall of America's parking ramp. "I'm just glad there's a light up here," he says as the traffic whizzes by. "It slows shit down a bit."

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