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Silent Passage

For 17 years, Sheila Radley-Mitchell tenderly cared for her comatose son at home. Now she grieves over his death. 

By Ilene Lelchuk, Staff Writer, Daily Breeze, Sept. 4, 1997


Seventeen years ago, there was a deep blue pool, an orange Tonka truck and a little boy floating face down in the shallow end.

There was a mother, too, whose light green eyes opened wide in horror as she stood at the pool's edge and screamed to God to spare her baby.


"Now I know I was praying wrong," Sheila Radley-Mitchell said recently as she sat in a living room filled with photographs of her other children who grew into first-graders, who became high school football players, who put on suits for school dances.

"I prayed 'God, don't take my baby,' " she said. "But I didn't ask him to make him whole.”

The 2-year-old boy drowning in the pool also grew up. But he slipped into manhood as silently as liquid food snaked through the tube attached to his stomach.

Felix Mitchell grew into a man while in a coma.

Radley-Mitchell devoted her life to nursing Felix's limp body in her house for nearly two decades -- until she couldn't any longer.


Felix died Aug. 26 at age 19 and was buried Tuesday in Inglewood.


His death in their Los Angeles home east of Gardena ended his mother's prolonged dedication to 24-hour care, hourly doses of medication, suctioning fluid out of his lungs every 10 minutes, and wondering if he heard her when she read books aloud.

"I don't think most people would have done it," said Sheila's sister, Connie. "I don't think he would have lived more than a year or two without her.”


Radley-Mitchell, 46, ignored the advice of doctors, friends and parents of comatose children who urged her to place Felix in a nursing home to save her marriage and the rest of her family. She also steadfastly ignored predictions that Felix wouldn't live more than eight months.


She beat the odds at every turn.


"I don't want to look sad," she said while being photographed recently. "It didn't destroy me. It was not a bad life. This was a blessing.”


Little Felix was a precocious 2-year-old with thick brown hair who was taller than his years.


He was a talker. He called his mother "my Sheila" and chatted with the adults in his Northridge neighborhood about anything.


"He was a cute little boy. He was always wandering the block," said former neighbor Milton Kolchins.


His favorite cartoon was "Scooby Doo," and he loved the Solid Gold Dancers. He loved his orange Tonka truck, too.


One day in October 1980, Felix was in the back yard with his mother. The phone rang about 3 p.m. Radley-Mitchell remembers heading inside and telling Felix to come with her. Instead, Felix went looking for his father, who was doing yard work.


But his dad, who little Felix was named after, had moved to the front yard and didn't hear his son call his name.


Radley-Mitchell said she believes Felix tried to fish his toy truck out of the pool.


When Felix Mitchell Sr. came inside and asked his wife where their son was, they realized something was wrong.


The father, who couldn't swim, found his son floating near the pool's edge. Had he been there one minute or five?


Radley-Mitchell began to scream.


A neighbor who heard the commotion rushed into the yard and yanked Felix out, and another neighbor, Kolchins, began trying to resuscitate the toddler. Kolchins, a pediatrician, worked on Felix until paramedics arrived.


Felix began breathing again but his eyes wouldn't open. Paramedics rushed him to Northridge Medical Center, then flew him by helicopter to Childrens Hospital Los Angeles.


Radley-Mitchell literally lived in the hospital. Felix continued breathing without a respirator and his brain was not swollen, but he wouldn't wake up. After two months, doctors began talking about nursing homes.


Radley-Mitchell would hear none of it.


As a teen-ager, she said, she worked at Camarillo State Hospital in Ventura County. "There was no love there. It was spooky," she said.


"I always thought I couldn't place anyone there, never thinking (I would have to decide) about my own child.”


When her sister, Connie, was asked if she would have made the same decision, she said after a long pause, "It's a hard question to answer.”


It was easy for Radley-Mitchell.


"There was no plug to pull. I could stop feeding him, but in my mind that was murder," she said. "I never had an option.”


Hospital staff taught her to use a suction machine to clear his lungs because Felix couldn't even cough. She learned about medications and how to turn Felix without breaking his bones, which would become brittle.


She hired nurses, bought a hospital bed and brought Felix home.


"At first we all thought he would wake up," her sister said. "I used to go in there and visit him all the time . . . but after a while, I couldn't see him. For me, I lost him 17 years ago.”


Radley-Mitchell never gave up. On anything.


Even when the state threatened to cut Felix's medical benefits unless he lived in an acute care hospital, she fought.


She had ended up without private insurance, cash and her Northridge home in 1985, when her husband was sentenced to life in prison for operating a heroin ring in Oakland. In August 1986, Felix Mitchell Sr. was stabbed to death in Leavenworth Penitentiary in Kansas.


Radley-Mitchell moved to the South Bay to be near her family and applied for Medi-Cal, but the agency refused to pay for home nursing for a severely developmentally disabled child.


She filed a claim against the state in 1985 with help from a nonprofit law firm, Protection and Advocacy of Glendale.


"I met Sheila when she was suffering from severe sleep deprivation," senior attorney Marilyn Holle said. "She was trying to stay awake around the clock.”


They won their case by proving it cost Medi-Cal 14 percent more to care for Felix in an institution than at home. They also showed that Felix needed his mother, not just nurses, to keep him calm.


Felix suffered from autonomic instability, Holle said, which means his nervous system was easily thrown off kilter. His blood pressure rocketed, his heart raced and a fever spiked.


"Frankly, I don't know what would have happened -- how long he would have lived -- if his experience was at an acute hospital," Holle said.


Felix's Medi-Cal case cleared the way for other developmentally disabled children to be fairly evaluated for stay-at-home benefits, according to Holle.


There are roughly 3,000 Los Angeles County families now caring for severely disabled patients at home.


With nurses now helping her, Radley-Mitchell said she tried to take on data entry jobs to help support her family, but that led to cuts in her Social Security checks.


Felix was considered semi-comatose by now. He opened his eyes during the day, but he still had no control over anything else.


At home she developed a tight routine. She and the nurses split the day into eight-hour shifts, which they spent in Felix's small room crammed with a hospital bed, boxes of medical supplies and, toward the end, an oxygen tank. Taped to the walls were time charts and detailed instructions penned on pink and blue construction paper.


Every hour they gave Felix medications and liquids such as albuterol for asthma, phenobarbital for seizures, valium to relax his muscles and apple juice for constipation.


Five times a day, cans of Ensure and water were poured into his feeding tube.


His nurses regularly applied Vaseline to his lips and tongue and cleaned his trachea tube that helped him breath. Twice daily they positioned his legs so they dangled off the bedside to improve his circulation. They turned him every two hours to prevent bed sores, which Felix remarkably never had.


The biggest danger was pneumonia, which Felix suffered from at least 10 times. He was hospitalized about once a year.


To prevent pneumonia, nurses drained his lungs before every feeding, and six times a day they performed what Radley-Mitchell calls "percussion" -- light pounding on his chest, back and sides for 30 minutes to loosen fluids. Then they suctioned it out.


Not giving up hope that his brain was alive, Radley-Mitchell brought in a teacher three times a week. The therapist helped Felix do art projects: She put a crayon in his hand, held it closed and guided his hand on paper.


But there were few signs that Felix realized what was happening. Doctors had no proof he could see or hear.


Longtime nurse Nona Hicks believes Felix communicated with her. He would withdraw from new nurses but could be calmed during a seizure by familiar voices, she said.


"I'm very sad (about his death)," Hicks said. "I was at his bedside for 11 years. He sort of came to seem like my own.”


Little Felix grew to be as long as the bed.


He had man-sized hands and a thin beard, his mother said. Only his feet stayed small, and his spine curved inside his frame.


"One thing that is remarkable is he grew very well," said his physician, Dr. Greg Smookler.


And his family grew around him.


Despite all the warnings, Radley-Mitchell said bringing Felix home drew her family closer.


"(Felix) was the glue that kept us together. When you came into this house, you didn't go to the refrigerator first. You came by here first," she said pointing to his room.


Her other children, ages 25, 16 and 4, wouldn't consider getting into trouble with gangs or drugs because they knew their family already had too much to handle, Radley-Mitchell said.


And she managed to attend most of her middle son's games and even work the team concession stand.


Radley-Mitchell's sister called her a natural-born mother. She is the eldest of seven children.


"She's a really giving person," said Connie, one of the youngest sisters.


She also said Radley-Mitchell rarely broke down in the past 17 years. "She used to write in the Bible a lot," her sister said.


After such a long battle to keep Felix alive, Radley-Mitchell's life of strict schedules and suction machines ended surprisingly abruptly yet peacefully.


The morning Felix died, his mother was preparing to feed him when she noticed his lips were deep blue.


He wasn't having a seizure. He didn't gasp for breath. He simply slipped away.


The coroner listed his cause of death as "near drowning." Seventeen years later.


Radley-Mitchell spent that first night without Felix lying on his narrow hospital bed.


"I had to see what it was like for him," she said.


It sounds strange, but Felix's death shocked Radley-Mitchell.


"He fought so hard, so long. I assumed he'd always be here. I was worrying about who would take care of him when I'm gone," she said.


Now what?


Radley-Mitchell cried that first day, but not as much now. She is already planning to work with the Regional Center, a government service for developmentally disabled children, to help other parents with at-home nursing.


"I want parents to know how long my son lived, that there's an option," she said. "I made sure I didn't have to get in a car and drive to see my child.”


Above all, she said, she wants people to know her life was blessed, not cursed.


"I had that child for 17 extra years.”


A trust fund has been created to help Felix's family with funeral costs. To contribute, send checks to Broadway Federal Bank, 170 N. Market Street, Inglewood, CA 90301, or call the bank at 412-3280. Checks should be made payable to "Sheila Mitchell, trustee for Felix Mitchell, deceased.”

Copyright (c) 1997, Daily Breeze, All Rights Reserved

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