|02-05-2002, 11:14 AM||#1|
After pain of extensive amputations, man found love and a true home
After pain of extensive amputations, man found love and a true home
By AMY RABIDEAU SILVERS
of the Journal Sentinel staff
Last Updated: Feb. 2, 2002
Sometimes love is so strong that everything else can be cut away, as long the heart and mind remain.
A Vietnam veteran, Donald W. Newell Jr. suffered a spinal cord injury 30 years ago. Complications resulted in the loss of his legs and, ultimately, his death Wednesday. He was 50.
Clare Scheuerell and Don Newell pause in May 2001 outside the home they were having renovated to accommodate Newell's disabilities.
He gave up his legs to heal his body.
- James Sanger,
That was how much Donald W. Newell Jr. loved Clare Scheuerell. Newell, an American Indian veteran of Vietnam, suffered a spinal cord injury 30 years ago. Medical problems brought the loss of first one lower leg, then the other.
It was just the beginning.
Finally, one of the last remaining options was something called a hemicorpectomy, said James Sanger, a plastic surgeon involved in Newell's surgeries and care. There are no delicate ways to describe the procedure.
"It's like if you cut the guy in half . . . anything below the waist that was left," Sanger said. "I was pretty sure it would kill him."
So doctors fought the infection with other tools - antibiotics, debridement surgeries, hyperbaric oxygen. In the end, the multiple surgeries essentially amounted to a hemicorpectomy, removing everything below the waist.
"Don was willing to do this to live," Scheuerell said.
Because a marriage certificate could have meant the loss of some benefits for Newell, they earlier held their own private unofficial ceremony. He became the husband of her heart.
"We had rings and everything," she said. "We were soul mates. We found each other late in life."
All the medical intervention, however, was not enough. Newell died Wednesday at the Zablocki Veterans Affairs Medical Center. He was 50.
His death could be ruled a homicide, because the spinal cord injury was the result of a shooting, which occurred in California in 1971. His family acknowledged that he was shot in the back while attempting to steal money.
"He was dead drunk and did something he shouldn't have done," said his mother, Virginia Newell. "But it's a fact of life that people make mistakes. And this is one that resulted in a horrible accident."
Newell was first raised on Walpole Island in Lake St. Clair, Ontario, as part of the First Nation Chippewa.
"His mother was Chippewa," Scheuerell said. "And she died when he was 5 years old."
His father could not care for him, and he ended up in foster homes for the next few years. When he was 10, he met the couple who would fight to adopt him.
"We just came to love him very much and wanted to make him part of our family," Virginia Newell said. In his new life in Ann Arbor, Mich., he shared a name with his adoptive father.
Newell married young and became a father but was later divorced. He volunteered for service in 1968, joining the Marines. He was shot in the chest and suffered some hearing loss in an explosion while in Vietnam. He earned a Purple Heart.
Sometime soon after he returned to the States, he was injured in the shooting and had trouble adjusting to life as a paraplegic.
He developed bedsores - a common complication for spinal cord injury patients - that required medical intervention. He was transferred to the VA hospital in Milwaukee for its expertise as a spinal cord center.
Newell and Scheuerell met at the hospital in 1998. She worked in medical records and was interested in American Indian culture. A white woman, she heard about an American Indian veteran and stopped in to say hello.
"Would you like me to visit again?" she asked.
"Yes," he said. "Would tomorrow be too soon?"
They hit it off, becoming good friends. The man, who had sometimes been a difficult patient, began to change.
"For some reason, he opened up to me," she said. He began to look to a different kind of future.
Extensive surgery was needed to repair his damaged body.
"All of the skin and muscle of the buttocks died," Sanger said. "The skin and muscle of the thigh and knee were used to completely resurface his buttocks and lower back - and it worked. He gave up his legs to heal his body."
Newell began to heal.
"If I ever get out of here, would you be interested in being my caretaker?" he asked her one day.
The answer was yes.
"After we moved in together, it finally came out that he loved me," Scheuerell said. "And I loved him."
Newell had always wanted his own house, a place where he could have animals, put up his American and Marine Corps flags. They began to dream together.
It took months of searching to find a little house that was suitable, then more months of remodeling to make it accessible.
Scheuerell bought the house. They adopted their "boys," a 22-pound shelter cat, Ghostdancer, and a little long-hair Chihuahua, a 4-pounder named Scout.
"Once he had some sense of independence and love and a home, he was happy. That's why I don't regret it. We only had four months here, but it was the happiest four months of our lives."
The couple, who delved deeper and deeper into the American Indian culture, also took part in a different kind of ceremony. She sponsored a naming ceremony for him. He was named Ocipinawahonikwit, or Onikwit, which means Ojibwe Cloud, in part for the way he appeared to float on his motorized prone cart.
When Onikwit was at his strongest, a spot appeared on his lower body. It quickly darkened, and spread. It was what doctors call necrosis - dry gangrene - resulting in his final surgeries.
With Newell too ill to make decisions, and with the blessing of his parents, Scheuerell decided to withdraw treatment.
"I thought about namaji - the Ojibwe word for honor, dignity, respect, pride - the highest principles to be considered in any important decision or relationship," she said. "I knew I had to let him go with honor, dignity, respect and pride."
Friends came to his room, drumming and praying. She held him in her arms.
"I told him I loved him, and I told him I was a strong woman, that I would be fine and that the 'boys' would be fine," she said.
She told him that he would find a place of peace, with no more wheelchairs.
"Don, you're going to be able to walk and run, and you have to make room for me, because I'm going to be coming to you. . . .
"And I said the 'Our Father' . . . 'For thine is the kingdom and the power . . .' that's when the last breath came out . . ."
Other survivors include his parents, Donald and Virginia; his daughters, Donna Chambers and Wanda Hook; sisters Cynthia Livermore and Barbara Newell; a brother, Eric Isaacs; grandchildren; and other relatives.
A memorial service is planned for noon Wednesday at the Zablocki Veterans Affairs Medical Center chapel, 5000 W. National Ave. It will include Christian prayers, military rites and, finally, American Indian rituals to help the soul move on to the next world.
"So it will be the three areas of Don that represent him so well," she said. "He was 6-foot-4 - I don't know how many inches he was at the end - but was the biggest man I ever met. And he had the biggest heart."
Appeared in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel on Feb. 3, 2002.
Maksim (Max) Bily
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