Jobless, divorced, alone, sick, heavily medicated and with a history of homelessness, strokes, mental illness and suicide attempts, lifelong suburbanite Chris Hradisky was an 80-pound shell of a man in October 2010 when a hospital phoned his younger sister.
"They told me he was dying," says Elizabeth, who hadn't seen her brother in months. "I was going to pick him up and take him to his funeral."
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She got Hradisky a headstone. It adorns his burial plot in Ascension Cemetery in Libertyville. As it turns out, he doesn't expect to be laid to rest there anytime soon, but it has a certain wry value for him.
"So now I can say I own land again," quips Hradisky, who, fresh off his 49th birthday in March, is back up to 170 pounds.
After coming for him, his sister realized he didn't have to die, and she got him into a different hospital where doctors agreed.
The hospital got him on the right medications and after nursing him back to life, sent Hradisky to rehab in nursing homes for more than a year before he got all the help he really needed. Today, he volunteers with a local food pantry and lives by himself in a Waukegan apartment, where he recently reconnected with his 14-year-old son for spring break.
How did he make such a miraculous turnaround in his life?
"That's where they come in," Hradisky says, standing in his apartment and motioning to a handful of health care workers and friends from the Lake County Center for Independent Living in Mundelein, and Elizabeth, who went from being an estranged sister to Hradisky's paid, part-time personal assistant. "These people saved me."
Now those services are being threatened by proposed cuts in an Illinois state budget politicians feel pressure to trim. Supporters of the programs argue that the state will end up paying much more later if it cuts programs that offer people help now.
Hradisky didn't always need help.
Growing up in Gurnee and Lake Villa, he was the middle child of five in a middle-class working family. The family dealt with the stress of caring for a child with profound developmental disabilities and the death of their father. Hradisky was an altar boy at Prince of Peace Catholic Church in Lake Villa and went to high school at what is now St. Joseph Catholic Academy in Kenosha, Wis. As a teen, he was diagnosed with manic-depressive and bi-polar disorders and had problems coping as his dad was dying. He also struggled with alcohol abuse and suicidal thoughts and often needed time away.
"Me and him were the closest growing up, and then he went into his own world," Elizabeth says.
But he managed to do well in college and jobs. He graduated with honors from Northeastern University with a finance degree. To pay for school, he worked at grocery stores from Arlington Heights to Zion, drove a limo at night and later worked his way from waiter to manager at an upscale restaurant in Des Plaines. He got married and bought a nice house in Buffalo Grove in 1997. He sold it to buy a bigger house in Lake Villa a few years later. By the end of the 1990s, he was a salesman for a specialty foods company and making $60,000 a year, he says.
He was diagnosed in 2000 with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease. Then the recession hit and Hradisky lost his job in 2003, forcing the family to sell the house and move to Byron. He knew he was having mental health issues, and his physical health was also failing, but he says he refused the treatment and help he needed. His wife filed for divorce, and the life he knew was gone by 2004, leaving him on the street.
"I was living in a homeless center in St. Charles when I went through my divorce," he says, noting he had a number of low-paying jobs that year.
He drank heavily and had several drunken-driving arrests, and he went a couple of years without seeing his son. Hradisky says he moved to an apartment in Rockford in 2008 in an attempt to get closer to his son. He endured a mugging and other crimes.
"The depression started coming back and it did me in," he says. "You hear enough people say, 'You're better off dead,' and all of a sudden it clicks."
Between 2008 and 2010, Hradisky tried to end his life three times. Cops grabbed him before he could jump off a bridge in 2008. That fall, he was tackled as he ran into traffic on a busy street in Rockford. In another attempt two years later, he took too many pills.
"Once, when he tried to commit suicide, they called me," says Elizabeth, who remembers wondering why she was listed as an emergency contact for a brother whose only contact with her in the past decade were the occasional strange phone calls in the middle of the night or a once-a-year plea when he needed money.
People like Hradisky, who are supported by Social Security disability benefits and Medicaid, often end up in nursing homes, where the typical monthly cost is about $4,350, says Dave Lowitzki, policy director for SEIU Healthcare Illinois Indiana, the service union that represents health care, child care, home care and nursing home workers. The average cost of keeping that person in the Home Services Program is only about $1,300 a month, Lowitzki says. Taxpayers pay for Hradisky's care whether he's in a nursing home or receives home services.
Hradisky, who no longer needs as many services, has a monthly cost of about $862, Lowitzki adds. Elizabeth gets paid $11.55 an hour through the state's Home Services Program, which is a Medicaid waiver program that gets half its funding from the federal government and half from the state. She works 16 hours a week cleaning her brother's apartment, doing his laundry, preparing his meals and checking to see if he's taking his 16 daily pills and staying on track.
Hradisky was in nursing homes when NorthPointe Resources, a Zion-based, private, not-for-profit provider of services to people with developmental disabilities and behavioral health issues, connected him last fall with the Lake County Center for Independent Living.
"I just saw a great desire from Chris to be back in the community," says Amanda Swet, a community transition specialist for the center, a not-for-profit agency that helps people with disabilities manage their lives, find jobs and live as independently as possible.
Swet and other center staff members got him out of nursing homes and into his own apartment with a personal assistant and other weekly support.
"I can't say enough," Hradisky says of the programs that got him back on his feet. "I'm still a burden, albeit a cheaper burden."
But he has plans.
In addition to volunteering at a church's food pantry and working with NorthPointe, he says he's paying child support, working on being "a good father" and getting himself healthy enough where he won't need a personal assistant and might even be able to get back in the working world and support himself. He says he worries that planned cuts to the home services program will force people in situations like his back into more expensive facilities and limit their options.
"Just because you have a disability, you still have the right to make the choices in your life. We're about helping them achieve the life they want to achieve," Swet says of the Lake County Center for Independent Living clients, including Hradisky. "I just see his life getting better from this point forward."
"The effort on my behalf is being made," Hradisky says, adding that he is grateful to the professionals and his sister for giving him a second shot at life. "I'm motivated."