Mike Marco RIP

The last 48 hours of Mike Marco's life were just as contentious as the previous 38 years

The first words Mike Marco ever said to me were, "I probably don't have much time left." He was speaking by phone from a bed at the Hennepin County Medical Center. "It's a very tough medical system out there if you don't have money," he continued. "It's kind of like if you're starving to death walking down the street: You can't just walk into any restaurant and sit down and eat."

Nobody I've ever known spent more time wallowing in the miserable details of his own life. In 1995, en route to Colorado from Chicago, Marco rolled his Nissan Sentra and became a partial quadriplegic. His wife of three years left him soon after. His parents were long dead--dad from a drug overdose, mom from suicide--and he had no siblings. Marco moved to Minnesota in 1997 in hopes of finding a decent place to live and better medical care. Instead he became mired in a pitiless cycle of institutional roulette, bouncing from his St. Louis Park apartment to nursing homes to psychiatric wards to group homes and back again.

Marco was a narcissistic, mean-spirited person who was addicted to painkillers and lashed out at even those who tried to help him. He was also a glaring symbol of what happens to society's downtrodden when there's no adequate safety net to stop their fall. The medical and social services that were designed to make Marco's life bearable repeatedly failed him.

Still, Marco was not without a certain sullen charm. Over the past year, Nicole Lindgren served as his personal-care attendant--bathing him, changing his urine bag, and attending to the other mundane tasks of daily life that he was no longer able to control. "I know he can be very cantankerous," says Lindgren. "He can be very belligerent, and he can be very hard to work with. But a lot of people don't know the warm and gentle side of Mike."

When Lindgren first started working with Marco, he bought her a bouquet of flowers. He also taught her how to play chess. A few days before last Thanksgiving they made a late-night trip to Cub Foods; an acquaintance was going to be in town from Chicago and Marco intended to put on a lavish feast. Lindgren says they purchased some $200 worth of groceries, including filet mignon, shrimp, and 35 pounds of turkey. By the time they were ready to head home, it was 1:30 a.m. and eight grocery bags were hanging from the back of Marco's electric wheelchair. There was a bag for each armrest, as well. In fact, there was so much weight on the rear of the wheelchair that it was tilting backward onto its safety wheels. Seeing no other option, Lindgren, who is legally blind (and carrying a case of pop herself), climbed onto Marco's lap. In this unlikely manner, they slowly motored the half-mile back to Marco's apartment. "I still to this day wonder how we got to his apartment with all those groceries," Lindgren laughs.

The last time I talked to Marco, he told me I'd ruined his life. In a cover story I'd written about his plight ("Sick and Tired," October 25, 2000, available online at www.citypages.com/archive), I recounted an incident in which Marco had assaulted a nurse with a can of shaving cream. He claimed the story had made him persona non grata at every assisted-living facility in the Twin Cities.

Marco's body was discovered on March 30 in his apartment. The last 48 hours of his life, as detailed by Lindgren and in a St. Louis Park police report, were just as contentious as the previous 38 years. On March 28, Marco was admitted to St. Joseph's Hospital in St. Paul for surgery. A device that pumped a muscle relaxant, antibiotics, and morphine onto his spinal cord needed to be replaced. The surgery got off to an inauspicious start when hospital staff repeatedly failed to locate a vein for an IV in Marco's deadened arms. "He just kept telling everybody he was really, really scared," Lindgren recalls. Despite the initial complications, surgery was completed that day and Marco was sent home with a new pump inside his body.

The next afternoon, experiencing severe pain and muscle spasticity, Marco tried to check back into the hospital. Because he had been labeled a drug chaser and disruptive patient, however, he was not permitted to return to St. Joseph's for followup care. The only facility he was allowed to visit for emergency treatment was Abbott Northwestern Hospital.

Lindgren received an anguished call from Marco around 7:30 p.m. that evening asking her to come to Abbott. It was her day off, but she went anyway. "By then everything was pretty much over but the crying," Lindgren recounts. "They had already decided to discharge him. They were going to humor me and pretend to work real hard, but they were going to discharge him."

According to Lindgren, Marco was flopping around on a gurney so severely that guardrails had to be used to prevent him from falling onto the floor. As the evening progressed he lost sight in his right eye, and one side of his body went numb. He had a fever that was fluctuating between 100 and 102. He warned Lindgren that if the hospital sent him home he'd kill himself--a message she says was conveyed to a doctor.

Still, the hospital insisted that Marco had to leave. Just before midnight he was taken home in an ambulance. Once there, Lindgren says, it required all the strength she and two paramedics could muster just to keep Marco's body still enough for him to take a sip of water. The medics then left.

(Abbott Northwestern Hospital declines to discuss the case without written consent from his family; and given that Marco had no immediate family or any relatives living in the area, that may never happen. "We really can't comment on a particular patient's situation when we have absolutely no way of getting any release," says hospital spokeswoman Jennifer Johnson.)

With Marco in bed, Lindgren believed there was nothing else she could do. Just before 2:00 a.m., she placed his medications on a bedside table and, at his behest, caught the last bus home to Minneapolis--a decision that continues to haunt her. "I can play all the what-ifs in my head," Lindgren sighs. "Trust me, I've gone through all of them. I lost a good friend. I lost my work. I lost it all. I have more questions than I have answers. Did it have to be this way? Is it Mike answering to his own karma? I don't know."

Marco died a couple of hours later. His body was discovered the next afternoon when Lindgren and another personal-care attendant came by to check on him. "I think the thing that I regret is that he died alone," says Lindgren. "As a society we don't want to die alone. That was exactly what he did: He died in his home alone."

The Hennepin County Medical Examiner's Office is still waiting on the results of toxicology tests and has yet to determine the cause of death. According to the police report, Marco displayed no obvious signs of trauma, although the responding officer did note "a couple of hesitation marks or cuts" on both of his wrists.

No family member who could be located was willing to take responsibility for Marco's body. Gearty-Delmore Funeral Chapel agreed to bury him for free. And last Friday a small funeral was held at Holy Family Catholic Church in St. Louis Park; about two dozen people attended.

"Honest to God, I don't think this man would ever have found peace in this world," says Tomi Calhoun, a Hennepin County social worker who worked with Marco over the last four years of his life. "I do believe this in my heart. I think he's at peace now. I really do."

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