Lost Son Is Home, but Health Care Is a Struggle

Chris Turnbow and Jean Aaron.

Chris Turnbow was reunited last month with Jean Aaron after she heard his voice on NPR. Joseph Shapiro, NPR hide caption

itoggle caption Joseph Shapiro, NPR

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Chris Turnbow left the streets of New Orleans after being reunited with his family shortly before Christmas. He's now living with his son, David, and grandson, Sam.

The other day, when Chris Turnbow turned 53, Jean Aaron baked a strawberry cake with pink frosting. That's his favorite. It was the first time Turnbow had celebrated a birthday with his family in more than five years.

Chris calls Jean his mother. She's really his sister. She raised him after their mother died, when Jean was 16 and Chris was just a few weeks old.

Only a month ago, Turnbow was homeless and living on the streets of New Orleans. He was featured in a story on All Things Considered about homeless people living in a park across from city hall.

Back home in Marion, Ark., Jean and Chris' son, David, heard the story. It was the first time they'd heard from Chris in five years.

Soon, Jean and David were headed to New Orleans. They found Chris just before Christmas, but they weren't sure if he'd want to come home.

But he did. He quickly gathered his things and made the trip back to Arkansas with them.

For now, Chris is living in David's house, where he shares a room with his 11-year-old grandson, Sam. He says he's happy now.

"My only suggestion to anybody is never to take for granted the love and appreciation of a good family," he says. "Over the years, I [took] it for granted and [wondered] would they love me and would they always be there?"

"But God put me in a situation where they weren't there, I guess to make me appreciate them a little more when I did get back."

In the garage behind the house, David has built a gym. He works out with his father. In New Orleans, Chris was gaunt. In just three weeks since coming home, Chris says, he has put on 30 pounds.

On the streets of New Orleans, other homeless people sometimes called him "Old Man Chris" because of his long white beard and graying hair. Now the beard is gone and his hair is trimmed. He looks years younger. Jean now calls him "Young Man Chris."

Health System Frustrations

Last October, Chris spent 16 days in a hospital in New Orleans. He had part of his intestine removed. He got a colostomy. Now he needs another operation to reconnect his colon.

Chris and his family thought when he came home to Arkansas, he would get the surgery pretty quickly. But it's not so easy when you don't have health insurance.

Teresa Turnbow, Chris' daughter-in-law, has taken him to a state office to try to sign him up for Arkansas' Medicaid program, the health insurance for the poor and disabled. It's unclear whether Chris will qualify. Teresa says it was hard to hear the state workers say that.

"I did get kind of upset, but I want his surgery," she says. "I want him fixed. That's what I thought I was coming here for."

"Everywhere we go, we hit a brick wall," says Chris. But he and his family say they'll keep trying to get him the health care he needs.

In New Orleans, doctors, nurses and social workers helped Chris get free, charity care. That's what he may need to find in Arkansas. He remains optimistic.

"God just keeps sending people to help me and help me and help me," he says. "I have faith that within the next month or two I'll be healed and ready to carry my life on. I just feel like things will work out. They have to. Too much is going my way."

In New Orleans, when he was lying in a city park, too weak to move, feverish and in pain, an ambulance took him to a public hospital. When he got out, he went to a free health clinic, where he saw a psychiatrist, and got his medications and colostomy pouches.

Now, unless he finds help, he has to pay for these himself.

"These bags — what is it, 60 bucks for 10 of 'em?" he says. "You know, that's not including 10 bucks for the glue and the medication that goes with it. My antibiotics, my pain medicine, my nerve pills — I have nothing. I can't work."

He wants to get well and work again. Before Hurricane Katrina, he took odd construction jobs doing carpentry, painting, laying floors, and doing plumbing and electrical work. In the storm, his tools and truck were stolen, and he became homeless.

Left Behind

Now, even safe with his family, he can't forget the people he lived with on the streets.

"I cry. I wake up many nights crying, worrying about those folks."

After his surgery, when he was discharged from the hospital, Chris had nowhere to sleep but a city park. Other homeless men and women cared for him.

"These people that society [has] marked as low-lifes, they would save their food and they would save their water to clean my incision," he says. "I feel like I've abandoned them."

He knows that most of them are still living on the streets, without a family to come and take them home.

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