By Katie Kerwin McCrimmon
FORT LUPTON — The scratching sounds that the mice made at night in that bitter cold garage still haunt Rosy and Raul Saavedra.
His schizophrenia magnifies noises, even harmless ones, like the trains that pass through this isolated agricultural town northeast of Denver. So the mice sounded like giant creatures living inside his head.
In the winter, the garage was so cold that Rosy and Raul could see their breath. In the summer, the air was stifling. The couple tried not to eat or drink too much because this garage, where they were forced to live for more than a year, had no bathroom. Starving themselves meant fewer trips to find a toilet.
Cursed as an adult with the onset of dual illnesses — diabetes and schizophrenia — Raul lost his business, their home and his easy-going personality.
The couple used to own a popular “lonchera,” a lunch truck, where they served homemade enchiladas, burritos and tacos. Their popular food and Raul’s charisma drew customers back time and again. Rosy also had a second job. A talented seamstress, she could make anything from elaborate wedding gowns to tailored suits.
Their work earned them enough money for a home. It was a two-bedroom with a carport and a big yard where they kept their animals: chickens, rabbits, dogs and cats. They had fixed it up with a new furnace and cushy carpets.
But they had no health insurance. So when calamity struck in 2005, they lost everything.
The couple’s only lifeline throughout their ordeal of medical challenges and economic losses has been the nearby Salud clinic, where a team of health workers helped them stabilize Raul’s illnesses and escape the horrors of the garage.
Salud offers integrated medical and mental health care. Dr. Tillman Farley, a family physician, helps Raul manage multiple medications for his illnesses. Meanwhile, Susana Gonzalez, a psychotherapist and licensed counselor, pays regular house calls to a tiny one-bedroom apartment that she helped the couple find.
Gonzalez is not a physician. But, that doesn’t stop the Saavedras from calling her Dr. Susana.
“She’s been a great help to us. She lifted our spirits up. We didn’t have any place to live,’’ Rosy said, dissolving into tears.
“Dr. Farley was helping with all the medical forms. It’s more than medical care. They are like family.”
American dream shattered
Raul first came to the U.S. from Mexico when he was just 18. He’s now 47. Rosy came at age 30. She is now 50. She hoped to earn enough money to buy a sewing machine, and return home. Then, she met Raul at a seafood processing plant where both were working in northern California. They’ve been married for 15 years. Raul has lost touch with his family in Mexico. Rosy has a grown son and aging parents in Oaxaca.
“Half of my heart is here. Half of my heart is there,” she said.
After moving to Colorado, Rosy and Raul found their own version of the American dream. They built their business and loved their home. Their lonchera was so popular that several people were lining up to buy it when they put it up for sale back in 2005.
They settled on one man and spent countless hours training him on how to cook the food and drive the truck. Three months later, the buyer tried to renege on the purchase. He said he didn’t want the truck anymore. He dumped it in their driveway and threatened to call immigration officials. (The Saavedras are legal residents, but at the time of the threat, Rosy was still in the process of being a legal resident.)
“Raul got really upset,” Rosy recalled.
That same day, the Saavedras had a friend who was about to give birth. Raul was helping the woman. Stress seemed to put him over the edge.
“He didn’t eat all day. He was pale. His lips were blue. That was the moment when everything changed,” Rosy said.
From then on, Raul was no longer the same person. Both his physical well-being and his mental health declined sharply. He was distraught that he would have to face a lifetime with diabetes. He started hearing voices. He would wake in the night and think that his dead relatives were in the bedroom. He scolded Rosy for not feeding the ghosts. Other times, he wouldn’t recognize his own wife. Yet, she cannot leave his side.
A dry cleaner in Arvada wanted Rosy to work there mending clothes. She tried it for a while, but transportation was a challenge. Rosy cannot drive. There are no buses from Fort Lupton, and Raul doesn’t always feel well enough to drive her. At times, they bring clothes to her, but the shop is too far away to bring them on a regular basis.
Once independent and strong, Raul has shrunken inside himself. He’s now like a young child, nervous and clinging to Rosy. He’s too sick to work. His medications make him sleepy during the day. At night, he’s restless and in the evenings, he wants his wife on the loveseat, right by his side.
“Rosy, sit next to me, but be quiet,” he says.
Rosy wonders if stress and diabetes somehow starved Raul’s brain of oxygen, triggering his mental health challenges.
Studies show that people with psychiatric illnesses are three to four times more likely to have chronic conditions including diabetes and cardiovascular disease.
It’s not clear exactly what caused Raul’s health decline, but experts say that as many as 50 percent of us will need some kind of mental health assistance at some point in our lives.
“At times, my husband looks well, but inside, he’s not.”
Caring for Raul and worrying about finances have become full-time worries for Rosy.
She can hardly think about the home and animals they lost or the freedom she once enjoyed.
“It’s over,’’ Rosy says, devastated. “It’s gone.”
Now, she yearns for very simple things, like a trip to her Christian church in Commerce City or a few hours at a real job. Her health is also suffering. Caretakers frequently sink into depression or experience physical ailments.
“I feel a very heavy weight on my chest,’’ Rosy says. “Sometimes I feel trapped, like there is no exit. I pray for patience. I ask God for strength.”
“It’s pure stress,” Susana Gonzalez explains during a visit to the Saavedras’ home.
Gonzalez and her team have helped the Saavedras qualify for housing assistance and disability under Social Security. They live on just over $600 a month. The tiny one-bedroom is much smaller than their old home, but warm and civilized compared to the garage.
Medications and spools of thread fill a table where Rosy works on any sewing commissions she gets. A fruit bowl sits on the coffee table. She struggles to buy healthy foods to keep Raul’s diabetes in check. His medications are relatively affordable because they’re covered under Medicaid, but sometimes Rosy doesn’t fill her own prescriptions.
“Sometimes we can’t make ends meet,” Rosy said. “I try to fix clothes. I’m trying to budget all the time,’’ she said. “I’d like to find a job, but I have to be here.”
Living close to Salud has become a necessity. Rosy and Raul can walk to appointments. And they feel lucky that Gonzalez and other Salud workers drop in to visit.
Recently, Rosy was able to make her first trip to Mexico in years. Her father is 93 and she feared that if she did not go now, she would never see him again.
Gonzalez and volunteers from Rosy’s church checked on Raul during Rosy’s trip. One night, the wind was howling and everybody worried about Raul. But he was OK, and Rosy experienced the great joy of returning to her hometown. Rosy is now studying to get her driver’s license so she can take better care of herself and become more independent.
As for Raul, he wakes from a nap and steps out to greet “Dr. Susana.” He sits close to Rosy and shyly wrings his hands, looking down at his feet.
He is lucid enough to remember the terrors of the garage.
“It was so cold. And the mice…,” Raul says, grimacing and not completing his sentence. “This is like a palace….They helped save my life.”