On Their Own
11/02/1998 at 01:00 AM EST
In a modest living room in Merrillville, Ind., a middle-aged woman, her face red with effort, struggles to move forward. She teeters, regains her balance, then haltingly places one foot in front of the other. Having achieved a few short steps, she reaches out to embrace her doctor. "I did it!" Phyllis Walsh cries into the shoulder of Dr. Mridula Prasad. "I walked!"
As a neurologist who specializes in the treatment of patients with multiple sclerosis, Prasad is used to giving emotional support along with physical care. But for three patients who might otherwise have spent their lives languishing in nursing homes, she has provided something even greater: the simple dignity of a place to call home. "If we needed it, we would want other people to come and help," says Prasad, 49, with characteristic simplicity. "I want people to realize that we are all a big family."
In a two-story townhouse Prasad bought as a pied-à-terre located near Methodist Hospital where she works, Walsh and her two housemates, all ravaged by a disease that leaves them physically debilitated but intellectually intact, are living independent lives. Though they receive regular visits from nurses' aides and volunteers, they pool their disability payments to pay for groceries and take care of each other as best they can. "The freedom is the best part," says Walsh, 51, a former schoolteacher. "We can do what we want." And the fact that their benefactress is Prasad—who contributes roughly $2,500 a month for the mortgage and their care—hardly surprises them. "It's nothing more than I'd expect of her," says housemate Sharon Smith, 48. "She's got a lot of God in her."
Prasad's quiet compassion was nurtured during childhood in India, when a mysterious illness that took the life of her 2-year-old sister also killed her brother at age 11. "My parents took him to all the hospitals in the country, but nobody knew what was wrong with him," says Prasad. "I grew up thinking that I would find a cure."
At Osmania Medical College in her hometown of Secunderabad, she met a young psychiatry student, Bhawani Prasad, now 49. "It was a big surprise that someone that intelligent would talk to me," she says. "I had no self-esteem at all." Still, the two married, and in 1976, after they graduated, she followed him to the U.S., where both eventually set up practices in Indiana. But, says Prasad, it was the 1984 diagnosis of the second of their three daughters, Ambika, then 10 months old, with a form of epilepsy that inspired her true empathy for her patients. "I was one of them now," she says. "The parent of a sick child."
Prasad slowly nursed her daughter back to health and over time began to realize a special calling. "Some people cried on your shoulder for an hour because they had a headache," she says. "Others, who couldn't move at all, were smiling and doing everything they could. I became attached to my MS patients because they were the heroes."
One of those was Sharon Smith, a divorced escrow agent from Gary, Ind., diagnosed with MS in her early 40s. After suffering depression and bedsores in 1997, she begged not to be returned to her nursing home. "At that point, it became very simple to me," says Prasad. In July 1997, she moved Smith to her townhouse, 15 miles from the home where Prasad lives with her family. Smith was joined by Walsh, Daisy Smith, 49, a former computer-programming student, and Sharon's disabled 16-year-old son, Vincent. "Now that I have him with me," says Smith, "I can sleep through the night."
Once they had settled in, however, Prasad's retreat came under unexpected fire. Neighbors and the town council accused Prasad of compromising the residential nature of the neighborhood by operating an illegal nursing home. When the town fined Prasad, she refused to pay. And in August, after a judge ruled in her favor, the town granted Prasad a zoning variance. "I haven't heard any more complaints," says Councilman Rick Bella. "I think it's going to work out just fine."
Spurred by the victory, Prasad now hopes to realize an even bigger dream. Last year she founded the nonprofit group People Helping People to encourage the establishment of other communal homes for the disabled. "I want to plant the seed in many hearts," she says, "so that this can go on after I am gone."
Cindy Dampier in Merrillville