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A fall, a call -- then heartbreak

Mary Belle Patterson had a stranger watching over her. Now her church is helping her theold-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, buta 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 againsther 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 telephoneoperator. "And they have taken my freedom away from me. Nobody knows what I have gone through. Whenthey 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 Floridadilemma: How do you assist elderly persons who need help but prize their independence and areentitled to it?

Patterson's legal troubles began when she fell in her Victoria Park home, dialed 911 and wastaken 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 ofPatterson and help discharge her, according to public records.

Until August 1993, Peterson, who never married, lived alone in an antique-filled house inVictoria 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 proneto fall. Unable to work around her home and reluctant to allow others in to help her, she let herhome deteriorate dramatically.

When paramedics arrived Aug. 2, in response to her 911 call, they found Patterson and herdogs living in unhealthy conditions, according to a police report on the incident. Paint peeled fromceilings; dirty dishes overflowed the kitchen sink; dog feces littered the floor and were caked inthe 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 aninvoluntary 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 tothe pound, where her 17-year- old beagle was deemed to be in such poor health that it wasimmediately put to sleep. A second dog, a young German shepherd that had mange when it went to thepound, grew sicker there. A friend later had the dog killed to put it out of its misery. Patterson'sthird dog was adopted.

Patterson remained lucid throughout her ordeal. She orchestrated a campaign to escape legalguardianship and go home.

She convinced two of the three mental health experts whom the court sent to examine her thatshe was not senile and could run her own life.

She enlisted help from friends at First Christian Church of Wilton Manors, who went to acourt hearing and offered to help restore Patterson's home and watch out for her if she was releasedfrom guardianship.

A court hearing officer agreed, recommending that the guardianship case be dismissed, andchurch members kept their promise. They spruced up her home and donated money to help keep her atthe boarding home during the renovation.

"It was like an old-fashioned barn-raising," said Diana Walega, a member of thecongregation.

For Patterson, love from the congregation has been salve on a hurt that will never heal. "IfI live to be 1,000, I don't think I'll ever get over this," she said. "I've fought very hard to keepfrom 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 healthierbecause 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 waythey 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 knowif 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 haspined to move home again, she never will.

Friends from church convinced her to rent her house and remain in the retirement home, whereshe has company and help.

"I can live with that, because I made the decision," Patterson said.

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