Columbia man dies after 14 years in 'semi-coma'

After living for the last 14 years in what family members considered a coma-like state, Robert Roche, of Columbia, died Jan. 12. He was 61.

His death marks the end of years of compassionate care from his family and friends.

It also marks the end of a life devoted to helping others, one that took Roche to many countries in Africa — first as a U.S. Peace Corps Volunteer and later as an 18-year employee of Catholic Relief Services, family said.

"I think he always had a passion for social change and social movements," said Roche's oldest child, Robert, who has followed in his father's footsteps. Robert works for Care International educating policy makers on international development and was in Ghana when he learned his father had died.

Robert said he came to his family's home in Long Reach to find his mother, Louise, a native of Zaire, which is now the Democratic Republic of the Congo, surrounded by other Congolese and African neighbors and friends from around the region. Close to 100 already have visited the home, bringing food and spending the night.

"They've kind of rallied around her and supported her," he said.

His mother's strength — which she showed taking care of her disabled husband for a decade and a half — was one of the things his father loved about her, Robert said.

Roche, a tall Pittsburgh area native and University of Notre Dame graduate, met his wife in the late 1970s while teaching English with the Peace Corps in her native Zaire. The couple wed in 1981, and following stints in various parts of Africa, moved to Columbia in 1994 with their three children, Robert, Melissa and Annette, in part to ensure the kids got a good education.

Then, in 1997, Roche was struck by a driver on a rainy December evening after he got off a commuter bus at the intersection of Route 175 and Tamar Drive, an accident that left him in what doctors referred to as a persistent vegetative state.

He could no longer walk or talk, required a feeding tube and a catheter. Family members and friends didn't know how much he comprehended, because of brain damage suffered from the accident. He was completely dependent on their care.

Four years ago, in 2008, the Howard County Times ran a story about the family's amazing commitment to that care, with the headline, "Faith, Hope, Love."

In 2009, the Times ran another story about how Roche's brother-in-law, Bateme Mupondo, who often cared for Roche, refused to leave Roche's side after a fire broke out in the family's home, facing smoke and flames until fire fighters successfully got both men out of the home.

That sort of dedication wasn't one way. It had been exhibited by Roche before the accident, too, his son and others said.

"He was an avid community person in the Howard County community," said Maxine Webb, a family friend, Columbia resident and former State Department employee who worked with Roche on overseas projects multiple times during their overlapping careers.

"He was a family man, cared about his family very much, did everything and anything for my mother and all of us," said his son, who was 14 at the time of the accident.

Though he wasn't surprised by how thoroughly and compassionately his mother cared for his father after the accident, her unselfish actions over the years have still touched him deeply, he said.

"Thinking about society today, and how marriage has changed, and how dynamics of relationships have changed, seeing my mother care for my father in the state that he was in, I don't know many people who would do that," Roche's son said. "How strong she was. It's a testament to her character."

The family is still trying to determine whether their father died at Sanctuary at Holy Cross in Burtonsville, where he was receiving nursing care, at Holy Cross Hospital in Silver Spring, or in the ambulance on the way. The nursing home said he went into cardiac arrest and was given CPR before being taken away in the ambulance, and the hospital said he was dead when he arrived, Roche's son said.

The family has since requested a private autopsy.

"We're trying to figure out what happened and kind of close that chapter," Roche's son said.

"It's definitely a tough time, but we all know he's in a better place, not suffering."

Roche is survived by his wife, his three children, his grandson Malik Roche, and many extended family members.

A wake will be held from 2 to 7 p.m. on Friday, Jan. 20, at Howell Funeral Home, 10220 Guilford Road in Jessup. Funeral services will be held at 11 a.m. on Jan. 21 at The Church of Resurrection, 3175 Paulskirk Drive in Ellicott City.

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