Return to independence

Determination, caring staff lead Covenant House resident to his own apartment

By Marshall Weiss, The Dayton Jewish Observer, December 2009

Robert Sussman, 49, sits in a wheelchair in his new apartment at Mercy Siena Retirement Community. Only a few days before, he said farewell to the staff and residents of Covenant House, his home for 3 1/2 years.

He never thought he would live on his own again.

“I had a rough row to hoe, but through all their physical therapy, they helped turn me around and get me on the road to ‘here I am today,’” says Robert, who has Parkinson’s disease.

Covenant House Administrator Maryann Bernstein presents Robert Sussman with one of 12 boxes of gifts during a housewarming and farewell party on Oct. 27. After 3 1/2 years as a resident, Sussman, 49, moved into his own apartment.

“You get a few people who come in for rehab,” he says, “but not many people go in long-term and get to get out like me. I’m probably one of the very few. I was the youngest one at Covenant House for the whole time I was there.”

Robert was born in Piqua and raised in Dayton. He graduated from Northmont High School with the class of 1978.

A chef, Robert opened three restaurants in Arizona, where he lived for almost five years.
“I came back to Dayton (when) my Parkinson’s really started to get to me,” he says. “I had Plums restaurant in the Oregon District. My first year back here, I tried to live on my own. It was OK until I got pneumonia.”

He moved in with his parents, but in 2005 while his parents were out of town, Robert caught pneumonia again.

“I went to Covenant House to stay for two weeks and I ended up staying there for three years, four months and 14 days.”

During his stay, he was struck with pneumonia three more times, ended up on a ventilator, and in January 2008 had amnesia.

He credits the staff and his fellow residents for pushing him forward.

“I could barely talk. My speech was all messed up and I took speech therapy and got better at talking. Lynn Foster was my physical therapist and she’s the one who got me my wheelchair.”

If Robert didn’t show up for physical therapy, she would knock on his door.

“She pulled me out on several occasions where I had pneumonia or medical issues and had me rehab back to my normal self again.”

Hospital stays proved the greatest obstacles to his progress. “It always takes so much out of you that you have to start back over again walking, you have to build up strength again.”

Robert says the friends he made among the residents became like his surrogate family.

“The age difference didn’t seem to be there,” he says. “They were my friends and it didn’t matter how old they were. Mitzi (Carne) is my bud. He came down and visited all the time and we chit chatted about everything.”

From his friends he learned to get out of his room and socialize. Within four months, he was resident council president.

“I learned a lot from everybody because there’s a lot of wisdom there, from all those years of experience.”

Robert saw that one friend, 90-year-old resident Evelyn Leibovich, “was buzzing all over the place on Project Mobility.”

He decided that if she could use this RTA service, so could he.

“I started going to the movies, I started going more and more, and said, ‘Gosh, I can live in my own apartment because I take care of myself for the most part.”

He asked Covenant House Social Worker Marci Vandersluis, “How do you know if you’re ready?”

She told him, “If you’re thinking about it, you’re ready. I think you can handle it.”

In July, Robert started taking his own medications to prepare for living on his own. He began occupational therapy to see if he was ready to cook. “There’s no problem there,” he says, “I’m a chef. A lot of things turned around for me.”

On Oct. 27, two days before he moved out of Covenant House, the staff and residents hosted a housewarming and farewell party in his honor.

“That party for me was something else,” he says. “I had to pack up 12 boxes of stuff, everything I needed for my kitchen and bathroom, I got.”

Of his years at Covenant House, he says, “It was really kind of the best three years of my life because they would take such good care of me. Everyone was so nice there. And the staff is just so outstanding. They do everything you need them to do without question, with a smile on their face. Maryann (Covenant House’s administrator) is doing a wonderful job and took the bull by the horns. That place is running smooth as clockwork as far as I’m concerned.”

Now that he’s in his own apartment, Robert enjoys playing guitar and keyboard, shopping and researching online and watching movies.

“I’m going to volunteer at Covenant House every two weeks,” he says. “I’ll get to go over and see my friends.”

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