When Vickie Ernst received disheartening news about her health, her thoughts were first and foremost with her son, Bruce James.
Known affectionately as BJ, the 33-year-old is afflicted with cerebral palsy, a congenital disorder that affects the body’s movement and muscle coordination. Ernst, 69, has always taken the lead in providing for his constant care, so her diagnosis of incurable stage-four lung cancer meant making a tough decision.
Fortunately, a friend and longtime care provider for BJ has stepped up to ensure his comfortable future.
Wauseon resident Debbie Spiess, who has cared for Ernst’s son in various capacities the past six years, will take him permanently into her home when the coronavirus pandemic restrictions are lifted. A GoFundMe account with a goal of $25,000 has been created by BJ’s sister, Virginia Ganster of West Unity, to raise donations for a bed and bath addition to Spiess’ home that will fulfill BJ’s specific needs.
The family is also receiving help from private donations and from resources to be provided by Crossroads Evangelical Church in Wauseon. All donations will be transferred to a savings account at Farmers and Merchants State Bank for transparency purposes.
Charity McGuire, another of BJ’s sisters, said it’s hoped volunteers will come forward to help with construction to lessen the addition’s estimated $40,000 cost. And she hopes the addition can be completed before the pandemic restrictions are lifted.
“We really want to make this happen when my mom can see this happen,” McGuire said. “She deserves to see my brother settled in his new spot. She spent a lot of time and effort to make him happy.”
McGuire said the community’s generosity thus far has been eye-opening, and credits BJ for the success. She said as a former employee at Triangular Processing, through his appearances at events around Wauseon, and due to his attendance at the Fulton County Board of Developmental Disabilities’ annex and The Studio, “BJ’s a big member of the community. He knows a lot of people through these programs.”
Ernst said she’s received help from her daughters and live-in assistance from her sister, Lorelli Moser of Pittsburgh, to see to BJ’s total dependence. “He relies on someone for everything,” she said.
Spiess is currently caring for BJ during the week at her house, then taking him to his home for weekends. Ernst said Spiess is a godsend, since Ernst’s illness quickly saps her strength. She has begun treatment with Tagrisso, a medication that targets lung cancer, but her prognosis ultimately won’t change.
“I don’t have enough energy to cope with him. I have a lot of family members helping me but it’s exhausting for them, too. It’s a hard job,” she said.
Her daughters offered to take in BJ but Ernst said that is too heavy a burden to place on young families. When, with her daughters’ approval, Ernst asked Spiess, “she was 100% on board with it. They get along extremely well. It’s a tremendous amount to ask someone to take a child. I’m thrilled to death that she’s willing to accept.”
She said Spiess will be compensated for her care-giving, and BJ will pay rent for his rooms. But she added, “I have complete confidence that she will look out for his best interests. I felt Debbie’s family was a better fit, long placement. (His sisters) are just accepting of another sister in their family, and I guess BJ is, too.”
McGuire said Spiess “is the most loving and caring person. She’s like a sister to us now. She is super transparent with everything she does for my brother.”
She said her mother never placed responsibilities regarding BJ on her or her sister. She said, while she helps care for BJ, she never realized the amount of work that goes into his full-time care.
Spiess said her “adoption” of BJ is a gesture of love toward the Ernst family, who she said has become like her own.
“I’ve developed a really good relationship with him and with his mom,” she said. “It doesn’t feel like just someone I’m caring for, it feels like family. When I walk into their home I feel like I’m home. It’s like a blessing to me, an extension of family. I felt very honored that she would ask me to care for him.”
And despite the profound changes BJ will bring to her household, Spiess said everyone is on board. “My kids have known him since they were little, so they can’t remember him not being around,” she said. “For me, I’ve done this before, so I know what it takes to care for him.”
She’s also glad to take over BJ’s constant care from Ernst. “She’s never asked for help,” Spiess said. “I want to see her loved on. She just deserves to have this time, when people are loving on her.”
BJ’s mother said she’s awestruck by the community’s generosity toward the addition project.
“People are just totally amazing,” she said. “Everybody is just astounding. I can’t believe how generous and kind everyone is.”
Reach David J. Coehrs at 419-335-2010.