Warded Off

She got into a suspect nursing home. And the probate system got most of her money.

Wayne Bruce and his wife, Shirley, were gently walking his mother through the wide halls of Heritage Sam Houston nursing home when another elderly resident flew out of a doorway in front of them, knocked face-first to the floor by a nurse's aide. Immediately Bruce called the police to report abuse. To him, that push looked like a Class C misdemeanor assault. He would know -- he's a police officer in Panorama, a retirement community just north of Conroe.

The patient who was pushed, Eufemia Van Rysseghem, had walked into another resident's room and refused to leave. But Bruce says the aide purposely and roughly shoved the 77-year-old woman in the chest. "They were like little kids playing a game trying to shove each other out of the door, but this is a full-grown nurse's aide doing this to an Alzheimer's patient."

The February 11 incident was not the first time Bruce had lodged a complaint against the Spring Branch-area facility. And it would not be the last call made to HPD on Van Rysseghem's behalf. Since then, George Salazar, who says he is Van Rysseghem's common-law husband, has contacted police on five other occasions. He has called officers from nearly every facility she has been housed at since authorities separated them last summer.

Salazar regained visitation rights to Van Rysseghem but deplores the nursing home.
Deron Neblett
Salazar regained visitation rights to Van Rysseghem but deplores the nursing home.

Van Rysseghem lived with Salazar for five years. Last June management at their northeast Houston apartment complex contacted Adult Protective Services, alleging that Salazar had verbally and physically abused Van Rysseghem. An ambulance whisked Van Rysseghem away to Ben Taub Hospital, where doctors determined the Alzheimer's patient had dementia and could no longer care for herself.

Then the Harris County probate court system, established to guard the interests of incapacitated residents, stepped in.

A probate judge appointed a temporary guardian to protect her. Since July that guardian has moved Van Rysseghem from a series of hospitals, nursing homes and other facilities. But as a ward of the probate system's security net, her health has declined, her personal belongings have been stolen, and her meager life savings has been emptied.

Three different attorneys have been designated to watch over her. Combined with another attorney, whose court-approved fees included charges for checking her own law office's messages, the lawyers took the majority of Van Rysseghem's savings in fees. And the guardianship that was supposed to save her from Salazar's alleged mistreatment has put her in a nursing home with an egregious record of neglect and abuse.

A native of Chile, Van Rysseghem married and moved to the United States in 1967. She had long been separated from her husband when he died in 1997. At the time, Van Rysseghem was living in an apartment with Salazar, a retired truck driver ten years her junior. Her brother and sister reside in Santiago, and Salazar is the only companion she has in the States.

Esabelle Molina-Morris, an investigator for Adult Protective Services, met Van Rysseghem in June when she checked on an apartment manager's complaint that the elderly woman often wandered the apartment complex grounds, crying.

In a letter to probate court, Molina-Morris recounted an incident in which strangers returned Van Rysseghem to the complex after they found her roaming near the Eastex Freeway at Tidwell. Salazar says they were in his truck when she simply opened the door and walked away. When he made a U-turn to retrieve her, she had disappeared, he says.

In mid-June, Molina-Morris responded to another call and took Van Rysseghem to a personal care home, which Van Rysseghem tried to leave. In a few days doctors transferred her to Ben Taub. Salazar checked her out of the hospital before doctors could evaluate her.

Then the couple were evicted from their apartment and fell from APS's radar for two weeks. On July 1 they had dinner at a taqueria with Salazar's relatives, but Van Rysseghem refused to leave after the meal. Frustrated, Salazar called the police for help getting her into his truck. Instead, an ambulance took her to Ben Taub. The hospital barred Salazar from seeing her because he was under investigation by APS.

Salazar considered the situation legalized kidnapping. He called TV stations, the FBI and Congressman Gene Green. He even picketed the hospital for a few days in November with homemade signs. In his zeal to call attention to his wife, he became a nuisance.

"It's a concentration camp," he says of Ben Taub. "We haven't been cited. We didn't violate laws. We are victims of circumstances. We don't have no civil rights."

A court investigator visited Ben Taub and decided that Van Rysseghem needed a guardian. Salazar applied, but on September 30 Probate Judge Mike Wood appointed attorney Ann Ellis as temporary guardian. He also ordered Salazar not to visit Van Rysseghem without supervision.

On a December afternoon, Salazar enters the Ben Taub hospital room with a cry, "Mama!" Effie, as Salazar calls Van Rysseghem, holds out her arms from the bed. As he sits on the bed, she places a palm on each of his cheeks, sprinkling his face with tiny kisses. Her lunch sits untouched on a nearby tray. He inserts a straw into a juice box, offering it to her. After a few sips, she pushes it back.
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