Mary Belle Patterson had a stranger watching over her. Now her church is helping her the old-fashioned way -- giving her choices and not charging her by the hour for the brotherly love.
The Fort Lauderdale woman, 75, lost control of her life to a professional guardian last year, but a judge eventually dismissed the guardianship case and gave her back her rights.
Vindication came too late for Patterson. The guardian placed her in a retirement home against her will. Her dogs, her only "children," were sent to the pound and put to sleep.
"My ancestors fought for my freedom," said Patterson, a well-spoken retired telephone operator. "And they have taken my freedom away from me. Nobody knows what I have gone through. When they killed my little dogs, it was more than I could take."
To Patterson, hers is a tale of outrage. But it's really the story of a common South Florida dilemma: How do you assist elderly persons who need help but prize their independence and are entitled to it?
Patterson's legal troubles began when she fell in her Victoria Park home, dialed 911 and was taken to Broward General Medical Center in Fort Lauderdale. The hospital -- unbeknown to Patterson -- paid $1,800 to South Florida Guardianship Program to go to court to win legal control of Patterson and help discharge her, according to public records.
Until August 1993, Peterson, who never married, lived alone in an antique-filled house in Victoria Park. She supported herself on Social Security and a small pension from Southern Bell.
Her mind remained sharp, but heart troubles and Parkinson's disease left her weak and prone to fall. Unable to work around her home and reluctant to allow others in to help her, she let her home deteriorate dramatically.
When paramedics arrived Aug. 2, in response to her 911 call, they found Patterson and her dogs living in unhealthy conditions, according to a police report on the incident. Paint peeled from ceilings; dirty dishes overflowed the kitchen sink; dog feces littered the floor and were caked in the wheels of Patterson's wheelchair; the house stank.
"When you are alone, it's hard," Patterson said. "I did the best I could."
Because Patterson's house was in such deplorable condition, Broward General admitted her for an involuntary psychiatric exam, the police report said.
A county health inspector said Patterson could not move home until the house was clean.
Police asked Broward County animal control officers to take Patterson's beloved dogs to the pound, where her 17-year- old beagle was deemed to be in such poor health that it was immediately put to sleep. A second dog, a young German shepherd that had mange when it went to the pound, grew sicker there. A friend later had the dog killed to put it out of its misery. Patterson's third dog was adopted.
Patterson remained lucid throughout her ordeal. She orchestrated a campaign to escape legal guardianship and go home.
She convinced two of the three mental health experts whom the court sent to examine her that she was not senile and could run her own life.
She enlisted help from friends at First Christian Church of Wilton Manors, who went to a court hearing and offered to help restore Patterson's home and watch out for her if she was released from guardianship.
A court hearing officer agreed, recommending that the guardianship case be dismissed, and church members kept their promise. They spruced up her home and donated money to help keep her at the boarding home during the renovation.
"It was like an old-fashioned barn-raising," said Diana Walega, a member of the congregation.
For Patterson, love from the congregation has been salve on a hurt that will never heal. "If I live to be 1,000, I don't think I'll ever get over this," she said. "I've fought very hard to keep from giving out, to hold on to my mentality throughout this."
As painful as the experience has been, one of Patterson's doctors says she is healthier because she was sent to a retirement home against her will.
"I think it has done her good to take her out of the situation she was in, although the way they went about it, I'm not sure," Dr. Lourdes Elias said. "She really wasn't mentally incompetent. They didn't give her a choice. They moved her out of her house, got rid of her animals. I don't know if there was something else that could have been done for her that wouldn't have been so drastic."
Patterson's house is now clean and painted in shades of pink and peach. Although she has pined to move home again, she never will.
Friends from church convinced her to rent her house and remain in the retirement home, where she has company and help.
"I can live with that, because I made the decision," Patterson said.