By Joanne Faryon/inewsource
They call him Garage for short. His full name is Sixty-Six Garage — after the place the van he was traveling in was taken after it crashed near the Mexican border about 100 miles east of San Diego in June 1999.
Or so the story goes.
No one knows for sure, but it’s the lore that’s the personal history of a man who has lived anonymously on life support for more than 15 years, longer than almost all of the other residents at the Villa Coronado Skilled Nursing Facility.
Jane and John Does live on life support in California nursing homes, sometimes for decades.
Garage, somewhere in his mid-30s, is severely brain damaged. He can’t speak. He doesn’t respond to his environment, but he can sometimes follow movement with his large brown eyes. He spends almost all of his days and nights in a bed in the corner of a room that he shares with two roommates — also on life support and non-responsive. He has a feeding tube in his stomach and a breathing tube in his throat.
“We all wonder: ‘Where did you come from?’ ” said Ed Kirkpatrick, director of the Coronado nursing home. “Did you graduate from high school, what was your life like?”
An inewsource investigation last year revealed there are more than 4,000 people living on special life support units across California. Garage is one of eight, according to the state, whose identities are unknown.
Garage’s care, about $700 a day, is covered by Medi-Cal, the state’s program for the poor and disabled. A section in the Medi-Cal policy manual allows Jane and John Does to qualify for care when they are comatose or in some other way incompetent.
There are also provisions in state policy that allow Medi-Cal to pay for long-term care for undocumented residents, a spokesman for the state told inewsource last October.
“My understanding is that he was living in Mexico (and) crossed the border illegally,” said Marc Steingart, a social worker at Villa Coronado.
Garage, likely a teenager at the time, was in a van when it crashed near the U.S.-Mexico border near El Centro. He wasn’t wearing a seatbelt and was thrown from the vehicle, according to medical records. He was eventually transferred to the UC San Diego trauma center in Hillcrest.
He spent a year in the hospital.
That’s where he was given the name Sixty-Six Garage. A hospital spokesperson says it’s common for patients who are not alert or awake – who have no ID – to be assigned a random name until their identities are known.
The fake names generate a medical record number so doctors can order medications and tests without delays. In the case of Sixty-Six Garage, his real identity was never learned and the name stayed with him.
“Rumor has it that when the van was in bad disrepair it was taken to the city (impound) where they fix vans that were in accidents. The name of the garage… was 66 Garage,” Steingart said.
inewsource first reported the story of an anonymous man on life support last October, when a woman in Texas petitioned the Mexican consulate, believing the man might be her brother. After the DNA test proved the two were not a match, Villa Coronado allowed inewsource to film the man and reveal more of his story in hopes of learning his identity.
Since he’s been at Villa Coronado, seven people have come forward, believing Garage was a relative. The Texas woman, Yolanda Ibarra Lara, was the most recent.
Her brother — Gilberto Ceron Lara — went missing some 16 years ago trying to cross the border from Mexico into the U.S.
“He did have a lot of similarities with my brother,” Ibarra Lara said through a translator.
“Almost everyone was almost sure that it was him because they coincided in a lot of things, the age, the time they’d been missing, “ Ibarra Lara said.
The Border Patrol reports that hundreds of migrants are found dead every year along the U.S. – Mexican border. Many are never identified, according to the Colibrí Center for Human Rights in Arizona. The Center currently has a database of 1,500 missing people last seen near the border.
Ibarra Lara traveled to San Diego to see Garage last October while waiting for DNA test results.
“I’ll never forget his face,” she said. “When he saw me, he took my hand and he squeezed very hard. Maybe he tried to tell me that he’s not my brother but for me to help him find his family.”
Kirkpatrick is part of the team of administrators and doctors who make all of Garage’s health care decisions. He said it’s the nursing home’s job to keep Garage alive, “and to keep him at his highest state of being” However, Garage has a do not resuscitate (DNR) order in place.
“If certain things were to happen (and) his heart stopped… we would not be continuing… life sustaining measures,” Kirkpatrick said.
Given his youth, Garage could continue to live on life support for another 15 years, Kirkpatrick said.
Steingart, who was Garage’s social worker several years ago, tried to legally change his name.
“Calling someone by that name is certainly not dignified,” Steingart said.
But the name change would have jeopardized his Medi-Cal benefits, Steingart said, because he’s already registered in the system as Sixty-Six Garage.
Last year, inewsource published a special report, An Impossible Choice, which examined the agonizing decisions families make on behalf of those who cannot speak for themselves and have not made known their wishes for end-of-life care. A relative can decide to withdraw life support when there is no hope for recovery, but inewsource found a system in which the default is to keep people alive at all cost.
inewsource reporter Leo Castaneda contributed to this report.
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