Retired Nurse Rebounding from Homelessness; Experts Seeing More Professionals Joining the Needy

Posted By Mike Padgett

June 7, 2009

PHOENIX, Ariz. – When Regina Fahnestock marched out of college in Ohio in the 1970s with nursing and psychology degrees, she was beaming. Her head was as high as her noble goal of saving the world. All of her patients will recover, that was her plan. Death was not an option.

But over the years, people and patients around Fahnestock did die. Her father died in 1984 on Father’s Day. She learned quickly that disease, aging, bad habits and bad luck will trump the newest medicine and medical techniques.

Fahnestock remembers wanting to become a nurse when she was a first grader. That was 50 years ago.

She worked for doctors during most of her career. For a time, she was a paramedic. Fahnestock even joined the Army, where she was a military nurse from 1984-86.

Today, after a medical career of 28 years, followed by her own rough patch of medical challenges, Fahnestock is thanking the world she dreamed of saving, for helping save her from homelessness.

Fahnestock is an example of a college-educated, career professional who was as close to homelessness as one could get, without actually having to survive on the streets.

“I was right there,” she says of being homeless in Phoenix. “I kept thinking someone will come through, or things will turn around. I wasn’t ready to quite give up. It was a pride thing. The homeless, you think of the bum on the corner who’s begging for money for alcohol or drugs or whatever. But that’s not always the case.”

Fahnestock, 56, has avoided living on the streets or under viaducts, but she was close enough to see that parallel universe. She says her brush with life on the streets “made me realize that even the best man on the mountain can be knocked down by a cold wind.”

Fahnestock says her failing knees made her give up nursing as a career. After a few years, when her finances were drained by medical bills and joblessness, she found herself in a financial tailspin. She was headed toward homelessness.

In recent months, while she was recuperating from knee surgery at the Carl T. Hayden Veterans Medical Center in Phoenix, her home was a transitional shelter in east Phoenix. Today, her life is rebounding. Workers at Society of St. Vincent de Paul helped her find a part-time job in central Phoenix. That job allowed her to relocate from the shelter into an apartment in May.

A Midwestern girl

Fahnestock is a product of America’s heartland, with its flatlands and rolling fields, of silos punctuating family farms of corn and soybeans, of daily farming chores through humid summers and icy winters. It’s a region filled with front porches in friendly rural communities where pedestrians and motorists can become rare after sunset.

Fahnestock worked as a nurse or medical assistant, starting with a podiatrist soon after her graduation in 1973. In the 1980s, she joined the U.S. Army and worked in military medicine. It was in the Army where doctors – after determining she had serious knee problems – discouraged her from re-enlisting after her two-year hitch.

She was 40 when she underwent surgery for implants in both knees. A few years later, she fell and damaged her right implant. She was unaware of the damage until later, after the implant had worn away part of her leg bone.

Around 1996, because of her years of 10- and 12-hour days on her feet, the mounting pain forced her into retirement.

In 2007, after tiring of the cold South Dakota winters, she boarded a Greyhound bus headed for Arizona. A friend in Phoenix opened his home for her, but she left within weeks because of personal disagreements.

It was at this point where Fahnestock found herself facing homelessness. She had no job. She needed knee surgery again. A doctor ordered her to use a wheelchair to give her knees a rest.

Tiger by the tail

Fahnestock has two adult children. Her son is overseas in the military. Her daughter and son-in-law on the East Coast recently welcomed their first child. She uses e-mail to stay in touch with her children. They have offered to help, but Fahnestock insists on taking care of herself. Her children have their own lives, she says.

Fahnestock had a tiger by the tail, and it was turning on her. That’s about the time she reached out to St. Vincent de Paul for help.

In her Phoenix apartment, Fahnestock says she’s happy with the new direction of her life. She doesn’t have nearly as many material possessions she once had, which she says is okay.

“I may never get to where I used to be, and that’s alright,” she says. “I just want to work and I want to be able to come home and just live my life for however many years I have.”

After her surgery at the Veterans Medical Center hospital, Fahenstock recuperated from her knee surgery at Ozanam Manor, a transitional shelter at 1730 E. Monroe St. in east Phoenix. About 10 percent of people seeking help from St. Vincent de Paul have college degrees or backgrounds in professional careers, says Mike Bell, the nonprofit agency’s director of shelter services in Phoenix.

Increasing numbers of families facing unemployment or the loss of their homes are turning to St. Vincent de Paul for meals, spokesman Ryan Narramore says.

“Your everyday families are starting to come in,” Narramore says. “They’re turning for help everywhere they can, from food boxes to anything that we can do to help them out.”

Homeless includes regular people

Fahnestock says there are many others like her living on the brink of homelessness.

“We’re not all addicts or alcoholics or people looking for a free ride,” she says. “There are some genuine, normal wanting-to-work type people out there who have just had some bad breaks.”

She adds that the twists, turns and stumbles on her journey, while as challenging “as trying to describe the color green to a blind man,” have changed the way she thinks of others and of herself.

“I’m not nearly as proud, to put it bluntly,” she says. “I’m a lot kinder and a lot more understanding.”

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Jun 7th, 2009

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