41 years of married life end abruptly in mystery Baffled wife struggles to see ailing husband

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Two or three times every week, Helen Vinci visited her husband, Frank, at the Veterans Administration Hospital at Perry Point where he was being treated as an Alzheimer's patient.

Then one July day last year, Mrs. Vinci found herself without a husband.

With no warning, the hospital released Mr. Vinci to a niece. Soon after, Mrs. Vinci began receiving letters from a lawyer. Mr. Vinci was revoking her power-of-attorney, the lawyer wrote in one letter. "He does not want to have any contact with you," said another. "He is filing for a divorce," said a third.

Within days, thousands of dollars had disappeared from their joint checking account, and soon Mrs. Vinci learned that her husband's Social Security checks were being diverted from home.

For months, she didn't even know where her husband of 41 years was, tracking him to a Harford County group home only after hiring a private detective. But neither Mrs. Vinci nor her daughter, Dorothy Mulligan, has been permitted to see him. They have been told that he doesn't want to hear from them.

Mrs. Vinci believes her husband is being manipulated. "This isn't Frank," she said. "If I believed this is what Frank wanted, I'd let him go, but this isn't him."

Or is it?

PD Mrs. Vinci, a born-again Christian, paced outside the group home

last Wednesday, praying that her husband would come out to her.

Inside, Mr. Vinci, a small, frail man diagnosed as having severe dementia, shook his head and wept. At age 79, his memory about even the most basic touchstones of his life -- his own children, grandchild and siblings -- is dim. But about his wife, he ,, was insistent. He did not want her there.

"I don't care if I never see her again," he said in a faltering voice.

Mrs. Vinci, who turns 67 tomorrow, crumpled under the weight of his rejection, crying quietly all the way home to Perry Hall. "If he had just seen me," she said, "he would have known it was his Helen and come home with me."

Mrs. Vinci's plight has elicited the sympathies of a powerful ally, 2nd District Rep. Helen Delich Bentley. Even so, it seems unlikely that the situation will be resolved without a courtroom showdown. Hospital officials insist that he had improved dramatically in his eight-month stay at Perry Point, so that he was capable of making his own decisions. Mrs. Vinci, her daughter, family friends and Mr. Vinci's own doctor ridicule such a notion.

"Sometimes he didn't recognize me," Mrs. Vinci said. "He didn't even remember his own daughter that died. How could such a man be competent?"

So for now, the question remains: Does Frank Vinci want what he says he wants?

'Like my child'

The battering to Mr. Vinci's brain began many years ago in a long-forgotten gym on Howard Street where he emerged as a pretty fair lightweight. He was admired for being able to survive round after round of punches to the head until his opponent tired and faltered.

No doubt those punches damaged his brain, but the worst was yet to come: In 1968 a gas truck barreled into the rear of the dump truck Mr. Vinci was driving for the stone quarry he co-owned with his brother. The accident crushed his skull and nearly killed him. He emerged a much milder, often addled man. "He was not my husband no more," Mrs. Vinci said. "He was like my child."

Mr. Vinci became forgetful and moody and eventually incapable of working. The deterioration was progressive, accelerating after the death of his daughter, Mary Grace, in 1989. His doctors determined that he suffered from Alzheimer's disease.

Mrs. Vinci said he often didn't recognize her and gradually forgot about Mary Grace altogether. He also took to wandering. Once, in Cape May, N.J., where the couple rented a home, he suddenly disappeared. He had taken a bus to downtown Baltimore and then walked to Perry Hall.

He depended on Mrs. Vinci for everything, and friends say she was loving and patient. "She treated him like a king," said Peggy Madden, a friend in Cape May. "She did every thing for him."

But by the end of 1990, Mrs. Vinci decided she couldn't handle her husband at home anymore. The VA hospital agreed to put him on a ward with other Alzheimer's patients.

At the hospital, staff put up signs pointing the way to "Frank's room" so that he would not get lost. Items in his room -- the television set, his drawers -- were labeled so he would remember what they were.

Dr. John O. Lipkin, the hospital's chief of staff, said Mr. Vinci improved, and the staff determined that he should be sent home or to a nursing home. However, Dr. Lipkin said Mrs. Vinci did not want her husband discharged.

Mrs. Vinci disputed the assessment that her husband had improved. But she said she looked at nursing homes for him.

Some of her friends also saw no signs of improvement. Vicki Sobczak held a July 4 party at her home only weeks before Mr. Vinci's hospital discharge. "He was like he was on another planet," she recalled. Unable to find his way to a bathroom, he started to undress in the living room, she said. Mr. Vinci also didn't recognize his wife at times, she said.

In late July, Mrs. Vinci and her husband attended a meeting with his treatment team to discuss his departure. The following day, Mrs. Vinci said, her husband's doctor called to say that Mr. Vinci had left the hospital for the day with his niece, Lisa Bertani.

Mrs. Vinci was stunned. She had left instructions that Mr. Vinci could not leave the hospital without her knowledge. And she said she never would have let him leave with Mrs. Bertani, of Towson, with whom she had a bitter relationship.

Mr. Vinci did not return to the hospital. Within days of his departure, Mrs. Vinci received her first letter from Ruth Lusby, the lawyer who said she represented Mr. Vinci.

"You no longer have the right to transact any business on behalf of your husband," the letter said.

Mrs. Vinci and her daughter, Dorothy Mulligan, found all avenues to Mr. Vinci blocked.

When they learned that he was at the group home in Street, they were turned away at the door.

Once, Mrs. Mulligan called her father's lawyer to ask for permission to see him. "She told me he didn't want to see me or my mother. When I asked why not, she said, 'I don't have to explain anything to you.' "

Both Mrs. Bertani and Ms. Lusby declined to comment for this article.

Mrs. Vinci eventually contacted Mrs. Bentley, who declared that Mrs. Vinci had been victimized and promised to help. "I felt it was very strange that all of a sudden, the officials at Perry Point were blocking her from seeing her husband," Mrs. Bentley said. She directed Mrs. Vinci to Raymond Atkins, a Towson lawyer.

Mr. Atkins' strategy was to question Mr. Vinci to demonstrate that he was mentally incompetent. He scheduled depositions by Mr. Vinci, but Ms. Lusby postponed them.

Meanwhile, Mr. Vinci was evaluated by his longtime family doctor, Charles Hoesch, who concluded that he was not competent. "His score was so low that it would indicate pretty severe dementia," Dr. Hoesch said in a recent interview. Asked if it were possible that Mr. Vinci could have made all the decisions ascribed to him, Dr. Hoesch said, "I'd say that would be pretty incredible."

The divorce case was dropped, but Dr. Hoesch's testimony may be important in what is likely to be the next round -- Mrs. Vinci's petition for guardianship of her husband.

The doctors at Perry Point concede that Mr. Vinci's mental capacities were limited. In her discharge note, Mr. Vinci's doctor at Perry Point said that "Mr. Vinci's memory and intellectual functioning are both significantly impaired. . . . Evaluation findings also argue against Mr. Vinci's competence to manage his own financial affairs."

Still, she found him "competent" to decide to leave with his niece.

Dr. Lipkin, the chief of staff at the VA hospital, said that although Mr. Vinci suffered some mental impairment, he had real preferences. He wanted to visit his niece, Dr. Lipkin said, and the hospital had no reason to deny him that request.

David King, an attorney who advises Alzheimer support groups, disagreed. "Clearly the hospital should not have released him without consulting the wife," Mr. King said. "The hospital allowed a fait accompli to occur and then he was gone." He said that if there was a dispute within the family, the hospital should have asked a judge to determine guardianship.

Dr. Lipkin acknowledges that the situation between the Vincis is far from ideal, but says the hospital was powerless to do anything. And, hospital officials note, Mr. Vinci has expressed satisfaction with his life in the group home, a fact that he reiterated last week.

"If I wasn't in this home, I don't know where I'd be, probably dead," Mr. Vinci said. Toward his wife, he expressed nothing but animosity, believing that she had tried to steal his Social Security checks. "I gave my wife no reason to treat me this way," he cried. "I don't care if I never see her again."

He seemed, though, to have no clear memory of events in recent years or a marriage that existed for 40 years. His wife, though, cannot relinquish their life together.

"They're telling an awful lot of lies, and I'm hurt by it," Mrs. Vinci said. "We had rough times, ups and downs, but a lot of good memories too. Well, I do anyway. I wish to God that Frank did too."

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