Keith Edwards typically does some digging to find a warm bed and decent care for indigent mental health patients. Usually, it takes a week to 10 days for Edwards, the behavioral health director for Florida Hospital Heartland Medical Center Lake Placid, and his team to call around and get a patient set up with family or the appropriate facility.
But in 2013, one patient was a real stumper. He arrived at the hospital with the police, who had picked him up after a church complained he’d been sitting under a nearby tree for several days. “He was not in the best state of mind,” Edwards recalls. “He was disheveled; he definitely needed clothing and a bath and someone to take care of him.”
The man, who could barely walk and spoke only Spanish, didn’t know his name (he told staffers it was “Jose”), or any other identifying information. A medical assessment determined he had suffered several strokes.
Edwards called around the hospital system, which is affiliated with the Seventh-Day Adventist Church, and social service agencies to try to figure out what to do, but got nowhere. Without name, date of birth or Social Security number, the patient couldn’t qualify for a Medicaid waiver.
“Everybody said, ‘No, no, no.’ I’ve never seen so many ‘no’s’ in health care,” Edwards says.
He and behavioral health nurse manager, Derick Roache, then took the patient to a mission, hoping he could stay there. But Espinosa, who is in his 80s, didn’t meet the mission’s criteria. “They required people to pack all of their stuff in a backpack and be out looking for work six to eight hours during the day,” Edwards says.
The men turned the van around and headed back to the hospital. They had been trying to get him to eat a bagged lunch they had brought for him. It was only when they pulled up into the hospital drive that he began to let down his guard and eat his lunch.
“He saw we were coming back to a safe place,” Edwards says. “That’s the turning point in my health care career — just seeing his overall facial expression, his demeanor change. It represented everything that we do.”
Edwards asked behavioral health nurse Sharlene Landers, R.N., to work full time on solving the mystery of Jose. Landers worked the phones, contacting housing authorities, shelters all over Florida with large immigrant Latino populations, state reps and the governor’s office, and the Mexican consulate. Still nothing.
Fingerprints were a dead end. “We were hoping he did have a record somewhere for anything — vagrancy, even. But he was squeaky clean,” says Landers, who was taken with his gentle demeanor from Day 1.
‘Jose’ recalled some personal facts when he talked with a Spanish-speaking Catholic priest who was visiting the hospital, including his name — Sebastian Ovalle Espinosa. From that conversation, Landers was able to glean the name of Espinosa’s parents and of Hidalgo, their home city in Mexico. An Internet search revealed the email addresses of three Spanish Catholic churches from that town. Landers sent a letter, with Espinosa’s picture attached, and about a week later got a call from a church that thought it knew his family.
Landers then tracked down Espinosa’s daughter, Juana Ovalle Garcia, living in Colton, Calif., who had not seen her father in 35 years. When she was growing up, he would leave Mexico to work in the orange groves in winter. One year, Espinosa never came back. The exact details are sketchy, but Landers was able to piece together a partial story from interviews with other family members: Espinosa was a victim of human trafficking, hauled around by harvesting contractors from farm to farm as slave labor.
In September 2013, three months after he arrived at the hospital’s doorstep, Espinosa and his family were reunited in Mexico. “I know that there are not that many hospitals that would invest the money that was invested here, trying to find a safe discharge for this man,” Landers says. “I just marvel that I was allowed to do this.”