Strong family copes with hardship

Thanksgiving is just around the corner and our thoughts turn to family and gratitude for our circle of friends, our community and the good fortune we have experienced throughout the year, or at least the hope and possibility of an improved situation as the seasons turn. The economic realities may not have provided a bountiful harvest this year, beyond the abundance of grapes and apples. Yet, like the Pilgrims of Plymouth, it is a time to celebrate being together and the strength of community in spite of hardship.

Hardship has a way of helping us appreciate what we have and often highlights the very best of the human spirit. This story from my neighborhood illustrates this phenomenon and may also offer inspiration. It is a story that focuses on four generations of women from one family – four very strong and resilient women.

I knew Debbie Feinen only through conversations about a vacant building on our block. The chimney of the building had fallen and crushed her car. Academy Heights neighbors have advocated for years for official action on this building. I knew that Debbie had worked at Carriage House and had a teenaged daughter soon off to college. That is all I knew.

Then one day this summer I noticed a newly installed ramp connected to the house attached to a new deck on the side entrance. Almost daily a wheelchair came down the ramp and the young woman who had once walked so regularly around the block in a rather straight and stately manner was ushered into the car by a small, white-haired woman. One wonders at such observations if an inquiry or offer to help would be considered an intrusion or a welcome sign of interest and concern. My quandary was solved when Josie Christopher stopped by for a visit and I suggested there might be a need for the Circle of Love services down at 419 Swan Street. True to form, she had a prayer shawl and pillows in her car and agreed to walk down with me to make the offer.

Nothing prepared us for what we discovered as we walked up the ramp onto the deck. Below us were two senior citizens, on hands and knees, moving rocks into place to manage drainage behind a newly reconfigured garage. They identified themselves as Helen Brinkman and Bill Robinson, the grandmother and stepfather of Debbie Feinen. Debbie at 47 had suffered a massive stroke months earlier and had survived against all odds.

It was Debbie’s mother, Carol Robinson, the slight, white-haired lady, who came daily to transport her to therapy and care for her needs. It was 94-year-old Helen Brinkman, who had assisted her son-in-law in re-roofing the garage to meet the bank’s criteria for refinancing so it might lower her granddaughter’s mortgage payments. Not only had they fixed the roof themselves but they had replaced the garage door and cut off the backside of the garage where a tree had wrapped itself around one corner pressing it inward. This involved re-siding, with Helen on the ladder passing materials to Bill and Uncle Buster Turk. The deck was also a newly completed family project. It was a gesture of love and family support and solidarity. It was amazing. They were amazing; but this was only part of the saga they agreed I could share in the Sunshine Corner.

The difficulties began 17 years ago when Debbie, then a hard working single mother, was diagnosed with lymphoma. She underwent radiation, recovered, returned to work, taking on greater responsibilities as opportunities arose at Carriage House . Her daughter, Miranda Gill, was a good student in school, aspiring to become a veterinarian.

On Feb. 26, their secure world crashed. Debbie woke up, didn’t feel well, but headed to her job anyway. There her co-worker, Harriet Strong, noticed she was slurring her words. She kept her immobile and called an ambulance. Feinen was taken first to Brooks Memorial Hospital, then flown to Buffalo General.

During her second day there she sustained a second massive stroke and was in a coma for three days, remaining in intensive care for two weeks. She lost the use of her left side, was placed on a feeding tube and her hair fell out in great patches. She was given a 5 percent chance of living. Her parents returned home from Florida to be by her side. Miranda left her coursework at Alfred University returning home to help care for her mother. The vigil began. Debbie is never left alone. Her mother transports her daily to therapy, shops, cooks and keeps the house and yard.

More family and friends pitched in to help. Her cousin Aaron Gajewski and her step-dad, Bill, rebuilt the kitchen floor. Buster and Diana Turk, her aunt and uncle also provided support. Diana made numerous trips to Buffalo General Hospital transporting family for visits. Buster helped Bill with the garage.

One day Bill ran into Rick Cole at Home Depot and shared their story. The Brocton fire hall where Rick spends many hours had a metal ramp they were not using and agreed to bring it to the family. This ramp has facilitated Debbie’s stay at home with excursions outside for medical support.

“Thank goodness for prayers,” exclaims grandmother Helen.

Pastor Tom Lawton at St. John’s United Church of Christ in Dunkirk has kept the family on the prayer list. He has made the church available for the family to walk around in inclement weather. Pastor Cheni Khonje from the Presbyterian Church has also been a sustaining force. Faith sustains them all.

The Chautauqua County Home is credited with helping Debbie make steps toward regaining function during her two-month stay there after hospital discharge. Her left side still has signs of marked weakness but with a brace she is able to walk.

“Debbie is a fighter and has always worked hard to achieve goals,”says Brinkman.

Agency help is in place now. Traumatic brain injury services are ready to kick in for home services. The most significant therapy occurs at Centaur Stride of Westfield with therapeutic horseback riding, an idea proposed by daughter Miranda who once volunteered there and saw many miraculous improvements. Miranda is now back in college, this time at nearby SUNY Fredonia so she can continue support at home.

Carol and Bill Robinson have recently acquired a truck that will pull their camper back to Florida. They will take Debbie with them for the winter so she will always have someone with her and be able to get outside for therapy. The plan is to return in April.

Helen Brinkman, who until 20 years ago, operated the Brinkman Mobile Home Park on Lake shore Drive East, kept the big house which had been a part of Tilly’s Motel.

“Now I’m beginning to find out why I kept this big house,” comments Helen who has space to welcome Carol and Bill.

In this time of Thanksgiving, this family is grateful for life itself and for the support of family and friends through this trying ordeal. The house is now upgraded and secure.

Their story of strength and fortitude offers inspiration, appreciation for local health services and admiration for one very dedicated family. They are grateful for the co-workers at Carriage House who essentially saved Debbie’s life, the emergency response staff, the compassionate and encouraging County Home staff, and the staff and horses at Centaur Stride.

Prayers have been critical. Pastor Tom at St John’s has agreed to serve as coordinator of any donations or offers of support to the family.(366-0710). SUNY Fredonia students recently raked leaves during Days of Service, for example. Miranda’s new Schwinn mountain bike was stolen from the property in the midst of this crisis. Return or replacement of the bike would be wonderful and help her get to classes.

Carol Robinson makes a strong plea to the city of Dunkirk to please fix the sidewalks. She ends up pushing the wheelchair in the street to avoid the jarring encounter with the damaged cement walkways. Luckily safe streets and sidewalks are issues currently being studied with grant money from the Chautauqua County Health Network. We can all come to the table and support this effort. Call or write your councilperson or call mayor AJ Dolce, to support the”Complete Streets”initiative.(366-0452)

Blessings for this family and blessing to all this harvest season.

Skeeter Tower’s Sunshine Corner appears the third Sunday of the month in the OBSERVER. Comments may be directed to