MHA Matters Ed Zuckerman 3/3/2021


The Power of a Familiar Face

Bill was a resident of an MHA residential program that provides specialized care to individuals who suffered a traumatic brain injury. (The group home is part of the Statewide Head Injury Program, funded by the Massachusetts Rehabilitation Commission.)

Recently, Bill tested positive for COVID-19 and had to be hospitalized in a COVID-positive ward. He found himself in unfamiliar surroundings. Separated from the people who normally care for him—people he considers to be his family—he started feeling like he just wanted to give up. He refused to eat or drink and his condition rapidly deteriorated. It reached the point where the hospital’s medical team discussed sending him home for hospice care.

Enter Ed Zuckerman, a Residential Support Specialist with MHA who has been caring for Bill for more than 21 years.

“Ed is highly dedicated in his work with Bill,” said Fred Destromp, Integration and Community Living Program Director for MHA. “If there’s a question about Bill’s medical history, Ed has this encyclopedic knowledge of it. He volunteers to spend practically every holiday with Bill, his personal commitment is remarkable. This is a special kind of work. You’re caring for someone else who needs your help for survival.”

MHA connected with Bill’s care team at the hospital and talked about the possibilities. It was agreed that a member of Bill’s MHA care team should come in and assist with his care. “I volunteered,” said Ed. “Between myself and a primary coworker, we look after two gentlemen who live in the house. We’re the ones they see and recognize, the ones who take care of all their daily needs. We’re here for them like family, so I knew I had to be there for Bill.”

The hospital staff helped Ed suit up in full PPE. “It felt like being in a plastic bubble,” he recalled. “I went in for a two hour visit. First I got Bill awake. When he came around, he opened up his eyes, looked at me and smiled. I said, ‘I’m going to give you some lunch.’ It took some coaxing, and when he started eating, he kept eating. Because Bill has Dysphagia, a medical term for swallowing difficulties, he must eat slowly and you have to ensure that he swallows and doesn’t aspirate. I went back the next day and he ate again. When I returned on the third day he seemed lethargic, which I learned was because he’d already eaten a big breakfast. He was tired but he was improving.”

“You have to understand that Ed doesn’t work at MHA to work a shift,” said Destromp. “Ed thinks, ‘Bill needs me, what can I do?’ For him, and for any member of our staff, it’s not a paycheck, it’s caring for someone. It’s being part of someone’s life, someone who needs you. For Bill, Ed was the familiar face of a trusted individual. Ed was the difference that saved Bill’s life.”

In the days that followed, Bill’s health continued to improve. Once it was determined he was medically stable, he was allowed to go home. Ever humble, Zuckerman reflected, “The staff at the hospital was very good, doing what they can, and I’m glad I was able to help a bit.”

The people at MHA who cared for Bill—Ed Zuckerman first among them—were heartened when he recovered from his bout with COVID-19 and was able to return home. However, some weeks later Bill fell ill with unrelated symptoms associated with his disability and passed away. He had been a member of the MHA family for more than two decades. He will live long in our memories and always in our hearts.

For Bill, Ed is someone who had a positive, caring and long-standing relationship with him. Bill appreciated it and so, too, did his family. Ed received MHA’s You Matter Award, sponsored by the Pioneer Valley Financial Group, in recognition of his respect, integrity and compassion. The following tributes are from the many notes of gratitude Ed received from Bill’s family:

“Dear Ed, we want to thank you for being so devoted to our cousin, Bill Higly…thank you for staying with him until the end.”

“Dear Ed, thank you for being Bill’s caretaker and angel for 21 years. He and all of us couldn’t have asked for a better person to be in his life than you. You have been there for all of it – his seizures, his difficulty walking, his final hospitalization and yet you were able to be there with kindness, a sense of humor, and grace. No one could have done it better!”

“Bill was sent an angel to oversee him for all these years, you are that angel.”