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Saturday, June 20, 2009

Des Moines teen helps dad deal with stages of living

By JARED STRONG • • June 20, 2009

Joseph Kearney crinkles the corner of his mouth and thumbs through the list of medical terms he must know for a test the next week.

Aphasia. It's a sudden inability to understand words, caused by disease or brain injury.

This is how the husky, soft-spoken 17-year-old spends time before class two days each week at the Mercy College library in downtown Des Moines.


If all goes according to plan, Kearney will be a certified nursing assistant in seven weeks.

Remembering what cerumen means - it's earwax - is the tough part.

Kearney knows from experience that not everything goes as planned. And that's why he is already several steps ahead of his classmates.

He's learned how to help someone who's bedridden avoid harmful sores. He's learned how to increase blood flow to paralyzed legs.

Most important, he's learned to help his incapacitated father find purpose in life.

Soon he'll walk where Dad can't.

"There are five stages of death and dying," instructor Cindy Vincent tells the 20 or so nursing students.

Kearney already knows the stages. Denial. Anger. Depression.

But he's seen them in someone who is living - his father, Joseph Sr.

It began more than five years ago on a freeway in suburban Minneapolis. Joseph Sr. was dozing in the passenger seat when a friend fell asleep at the wheel on the way back to Des Moines after an overnight trip.

The car careened through a guardrail, leveled a light pole and rolled three times into some water. The right front wheel was pushed into Joseph Sr.'s seat. Joseph Sr.'s spinal cord was severed.

His son was 12 at the time. There are two words he remembers more than anything after his dad's release from the hospital nine months later: "Why me?" Joseph Sr. often asked.

That's the anger stage.

The crash stretched the family's already-thin finances.

In the year before the accident, Joseph Sr. had several run-ins with the law, mostly for petty theft.

"We were really having a rough time. It was a weird year," he recalls.

Joseph Sr., 42, had been a nursing assistant and aspired to be a registered nurse. The wrong crowd made his dream difficult. The crash made it impossible.

He and his wife, Lasandra, filed for bankruptcy six months later and moved themselves and Joseph Jr. and his brother, Alonzo, 15, from their rented home on Des Moines' south side to a one-bedroom apartment in West Des Moines.

Lasandra Kearney, 43, sorted mail at the post office more than 80 hours a week to save for a down payment on a home, which she bought in less than a year.

Joseph Jr. became his father's primary caregiver. The teenager juggled the added responsibility with schoolwork and, later, a part-time job at McDonald's.

Father and son grew close. Topics such as girls became easier to talk about. Joseph Jr. looked to his future. Caring for his father gave him a passion for nursing. Maybe, he thought, he could be Dr. Kearney some day.

"Days will be rough if you don't go to college," Dad told him. "College won't be easy, but once you make it, you make it."

On this Father's Day, Joseph Jr. will wake up at 6 a.m. and get his dad ready for church.

He'll rub lotion on Joseph Sr.'s paralyzed legs and look them over for signs of sores. The two will struggle to put on special leggings that will help Joseph Sr.'s blood circulation. Dad will breathe heavily from the effort.

Next the pants. Then the shoes. This is the daily routine at their Des Moines home.

"One, two, three," Joseph Sr. will count as father and son combine their strength to scoot the older man's 300 pounds to the edge of the bed and into a motorized wheelchair.

They go to the bathroom, where Joseph Jr. helps his father wash. In the afternoon, Joseph Jr. will head to McDonald's, where he works about 30 hours each week. The schedule leaves little room to be a football-loving kid.

By JARED STRONG • • June 20, 2009

Joseph Jr. attended school during the summers to graduate early from Lincoln High School. A state Department of Labor grant will cover the $1,100 cost of his nurse's assistant certificate. He plans to start work at a nursing home in August and continue with college classes.

The last five years may not have taught Joseph Jr. how to define such words as aphasia and cerumen, but they did show him how to define his life.

"It's a big journey," Joseph Sr. said. "I want what every father wants, you know? I want him to achieve more than I did. I want him to do things that I couldn't.

"Hell, one day he may find the cure for me."

That's the acceptance stage.


Joseph Kearney Jr. helps his father bathe in the family’s wheelchair-accessible bathroom. Joseph Sr. had once been a nursing assistant and aspired to be a registered nurse.

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