Jeorge Shelden wakes up every day to see his children off to school and waits until they get home. The weekends are spent together, as a family, drawing and watching television, but Jeorge is not your typical family man. He can’t get out of bed and hasn’t for over a year and a half.
At the age of 32, Jeorge has been in and out of hospice care for nearly three years. Before the diagnosis giving him four years to live, in 1998, Jeorge used to be, in his words, a “bad guy.”
Jeorge used to do and sell drugs. He was buying cigarettes and alcohol in his early teens and didn’t finish high school, because he never lasted at one long enough to get a diploma.
“I think the only thing that saved my life was getting hurt,” Jeorge said. “I would’ve been shot, or (in) prison or worse. It’s kind of bad, but it’s the truth.”
Not long after meeting Naomi, his wife of 17 years, Jeorge, then 14, sustained a life-changing injury.
While living in Stanton, Michigan, an angry man stopped Jeorge when he was walking home after a night of partying. The man towered over Jeorge and had a bone to pick. His daughter claimed Jeorge made an unwelcomed advance toward her.
“(I was) coming home from a party … drunk,” Jeorge said, recalling the night he was confronted by the middle-aged man. “I tried fighting him face-to-face. He told me he didn’t want to fight … When I turned around he tackled me and crushed my hip into the cement. I was maybe 125 (pounds) at the time.”
Although Jeorge does not remember how he got home, he does remember waking up the next day on his front porch, as well as the unexpected tackle the night before, that shattered his left hip and led to a physical decline that would continue over the course of the next two decades.
“My dad didn’t take me to the hospital (right away),” Jeorge said. “I laid in bed for three days unable to walk … I (developed) a limp … They called it juvenile arthritis.”
Jeorge’s condition continued to worsen and he ended up seeing many neurologists and specialists across the state of Michigan. They all said the same thing, but none of them could give Jeorge a clear answer.
“They basically just told me I was going to have a short life, that I wasn’t going to live that long.”
Jeorge met Naomi, then 16, around that time. She assumed he was the same age, not two years younger, because his friends were older. They started dating shortly thereafter.
One year after they started dating, Naomi gave birth to their oldest daughter, Callie, now 16. They married later that year. Jeorge wore all white and Naomi found a black velvet dress. Jeorge’s mom asked Naomi if she was going to her wedding or a funeral.
Jeorge’s dad answered for Naomi.
“She’s marrying into this family,” he said. “So yeah, she’s going to her funeral.”
While it’s been tough having a husband who’s health has been in decline throughout their marriage, the reason why they make it work is simple.
“We probably wouldn’t be together today if it wasn’t for family,” Naomi said. “Jeorge was raised rough, but if someone was in trouble they would be there to help … In my family, we were brought up (to) help people. It’s good karma.”
“We were always a close-knit family anyway. Our family looks out for each other.”
Dealing with the Pain
Jeorge may have surpassed the doctors life expectancy by this point, but there have been setbacks, including developing an addiction to the medication that helps him deal with the pain.
“I didn’t get bad into (prescription pills) until about eight weeks after I got hurt,” Jeorge said. “When I was 15, I learned about Vicodin and OxyContin. The only way I could work, because I quit school, was to take painkillers. I had to support my child at the time, so I got into pills pretty bad.”
After abusing the drugs he needed to get through each day, for years, Jeorge was sent to a rehabilitation center in the Upper Peninsula. He credits the Marquette Guidance Center as the place where he corralled his addiction, because he still believes that he is addicted to pain medication, but he no longer abuses it.
This was also the place where Jeorge learned to enjoy life.
“I got to do a lot of things I never did as a child,” Jeorge said. “I got to jump off the top of quarries, swim in under water caves. Basically I got to enjoy the outdoors for the first time.
“I grew up fast.”
Loss of Mobility
At the age of 22 Jeorge was diagnosed with a list of illnesses, including muscular dystrophy, scoliosis, chronic waste syndrome and multiple sclerosis. Doctors have not been able to pinpoint the exact illness causing the most damage or provide a clear reason why he can no longer use his legs.
“I got to the point where I couldn’t walk anymore, my knees would shake and I would just fall down,” Jeorge said. “The doctors told me the pain would get so bad that the pain alone could kill me. They had to have me on high, high doses of medication.
“Basically my body is eating itself away. I’m down to 57 pounds now.”
The last time Jeorge remembers walking was September 18, 2004, the day his legs “gave out.” He used a wheelchair up until about 18 months ago, but the pain in his spine has made even getting in and out of a wheelchair too difficult. He can still feel his legs and “every single part of his body,” but has not left his bed in a year and a half.
“(Taiya) has never seen Jeorge walk,” Naomi said, about their youngest daughter. “She used to climb up in the wheelchair and ride with him instead of being in a stroller … She remembers him being out of bed, but I think she would rather have him in bed, so she can cuddle more.”
What really matters
While some people might see this as a death sentence, Jeorge’s eyes have been opened to what is really important in life, family.
“I’ve done a lot of bad stuff in my life but I have three beautiful children,” Jeorge said. “I’ve made it right and I figured karma was going to catch up with me and karma did. I don’t bitch or complain, because I’ve seen younger kids die … They took it (in) stride and so can I.
“We all have to die, that’s just the way I look at it. I try to make my days go as good as they can.”
Now bedridden because of his condition, Jeorge spends most of his time with his children. He might take a nap or play a few video games while they’re at school, but the day doesn’t really continue until the kids come home.
“I look forward to seeing my wife and kids first thing in the morning,” Jeorge said. “That’s the first thing I do. I get up with them and enjoy the little time I can and wait for them to get home … I got friends but friends come and go. Family is forever.”
Jeorge’s children know what’s happening with their father, but keep a positive outlook and have lofty goals. Callie wants to go to art school and visit the Louvre, Shaun has aspirations of joining the U.S. Marines and developing video games to help train soldiers and Taiya says she will be a princess forever.
“It will be pretty hard,” Callie said about life without her father. “Especially for Taiya (6) and Shaun (11), losing a father at such a young age. For me, I will always have those memories of having a father (during) my childhood and I know that he will always be looking out for us.”
Though she is able to manage the difficulty of living with a dying father, who might not get to see her graduate next year, Callie is still a teenager.
“Sometimes I just want to walk out, but I love him too much to do that,” Callie said. “My family, we’re a bunch of weirdos, but if you get to know us, you’ll learn to love us.”
Jeorge and his family live in what he describes as a “tuna can” or “claustrophobic hellhole.” The family of five is crammed into a 3-bedroom trailer in Orleans, Michigan and the only thing that Jeorge wants is to find a better home for his wife and kids.
“My main concern before I die (is to) make sure they have a nice place to live,” Jeorge said. “They all have checks coming. I want to make sure they do have a house before I pass away, or at least something nice.
“It’s the only worry I have left in my life.”
Living – not dying –in hospice care
Many people don’t understand what hospice is, and, in the beginning, Jeorge didn’t either. Now after years in the program he understands that it is an organization meant to help people.
“If it weren’t for hospice I’d be dead already,” Jeorge said. “They helped me with therapy … They bought our kids Christmas presents because we couldn’t afford them. They have big hearts.”
The hospice provided pastor who visits each week brings flowers for Naomi and fried chicken for Jeorge.
“She knows what I like, knows my soft spot,” Jeorge said. “They’re really good people.”
Another thing Jeorge wants to do is help people headed down the wrong path, by telling his story, having them learn from his mistakes. He wants people to stop and look around, be aware of their surroundings and realize what really matters.
“If I could (talk to) somebody in my shoes, I’d tell them to enjoy every day like it’s your last,” Jeorge said. “Stop and think about life. There aren’t any second chances. Once you’re gone, you’re gone.
“That’s what I do. Every day I wake up, I enjoy it to the fullest. It’s the only way to live.”