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Woman who wove safety net for others falls in its absence

IT ISN'T SUPPOSED to happen this way. Vivianne Haxel was always looking out for others -- for battered women and their children, for those who had no place to go in a difficult season. Now she's alone in Edgewood, with multiple sclerosis and no one around, and her plea for assistance lost somewhere in the maze of the Social Security Administration.

She used to run Wendy Jo's Place in Bel Air, where she helped house a few hundred people over several years. That was before the disease kicked in, with its cruel attacks on the central nervous system. She had a husband then, and six children. Now two of the children are off finishing school and the other four live with their father because Vivianne can barely care for herself.

She is 39 years old, and her eyesight is failing badly and on good days she can take a few steps to get herself into a wheelchair and on bad days she does not get out of bed. She had a car, but it is gone. She had a little jewelry, but this, too, is gone. Bills had to be paid. She cannot work and relies on government food stamps to feed herself. But now she has trouble chewing, and trouble swallowing even soft foods.

In New York, her mother, Paula Brozak, frets across 200 miles of telephone wire. She is 76 years old and lives on a small Social Security check.

"I'm sitting here feeling helpless," says Brozak. "To know that your daughter is so helpless, and you're miles away and can't do anything for her ..."

Her voice trails off. "It's pathetic," she says finally. "Little bit by little bit, she deteriorates. A beautiful, smart, college-educated woman, and she has nothing now. She tried everything, she tried everything. And she goes to the Social Security hearing, and they do nothing for her."

The Social Security hearing was in December. Haxel's attorney, Paul Schlitz Jr., of Jenkins, Block and Associates, shakes his head at the memory.

"Because she's young, and she's still articulate and hasn't given up on life and is still trying to take care of herself," Schlitz says, "I think the administrative judge looked at her and thought, 'OK, she's not so bad.' They're used to seeing older people, who are missing their teeth and have given up on life. She's still trying to hang on, even as the disease takes its toll.

"And now, because she has no income, and very little medical insurance, she can't get the consistent treatment she needs. All her treatment for the disease has come from hospitals, because hospitals can't turn you away. But there's no single doctor she goes to for regular treatment."

So the administrative judge turned her down for Social Security benefits. When the disease was diagnosed, five years ago, Haxel weighed 170 pounds. Now she weighs 110. Her eyesight has diminished dramatically. The doctors call it optical neuritis.

"My whole body," Haxel said last week, "seems to be wasting away horribly."

She said this without a tinge of self-pity. It is what it is. But at such moments in the lives of human beings, there is supposed to be a safety net. Haxel used to be part of that safety net for others in trouble.

She was president of Wendy Jo's Place in Bel Air, where battered women and their children found shelter. Haxel got financial help from Lighthouse Ministries and the United Way and several churches. They provided not only shelter but also food and transportation.

"She's an extremely nice person," says Schlitz. "That's part of her problem. She's this nice woman who doesn't want to bother anybody, and sometimes the system overlooks such people. She would love to go back to work. But she can't, not unless she hits some brief period of remission."

Meanwhile, says Schlitz, Haxel's case has reached what is known as Social Security's Black Hole. This is the appeals council, where she can ask for a nullification of the administrative law judge's ruling.

"The problem," says Schlitz, "is that it can take up to two years for the appeal to run its course. So we filed the claim. But you can imagine the stress, to be in her condition and know that it might be another two years before she hears something."

It isn't supposed to happen this way. Nobody is supposed to be so vulnerable, and so alone. Haxel's children come by to visit her, but they're still school kids. She has friends who drive her around, but she can no longer trust herself behind the wheel of a car. She has the mother in New York who has her own limits.

And we have a thing in place, the Social Security Administration, which is supposed to look after those such as Vivianne Haxel. She has nothing left, and the bill collectors are knocking on the door. If we can't look out for such a woman, then what kind of a society are we?

Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun
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