Newspaper article Charleston Gazette Mail

HOME FOR THE HOLIDAYS ; Terminally Ill Veteran `Home' for the Holidays

Newspaper article Charleston Gazette Mail

HOME FOR THE HOLIDAYS ; Terminally Ill Veteran `Home' for the Holidays

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CULLODEN - Inside a cozy home brimming with Christmas decorations, Abraham Likens rocks on his feet, smiling broadly; when he falls into a seated position on the love seat behind him, he gets up quickly, still smiling. Likens, a former U.S. Navy petty officer second class, just turned 34. Naturally cheerful, he "can't be made mad," according to Connie Baldwin, the woman who has committed herself to caring for Likens for the rest of his life.

In 2011, Likens was diagnosed with Huntington's disease, a rare genetic condition that causes a progressive loss of nerve and brain cells. Huntington's is incurable and fatal - Likens' mother, also a veteran, died from the disease, as did an aunt and an uncle while still in their 20s, and his grandmother when she was just 35 years old.

"It will come to that, eventually, Baldwin said.

The Huntington Veterans Affairs Hospital's Medical Foster Home Program pairs terminally ill veterans like Likens with caregivers like Baldwin, the program's first caregiver when it started more than five years ago. Likens came to live with the Baldwins in August 2014, after it became clear that he no longer could live alone. For now, he is still able to get out and do the things he enjoys, and he has become good friends with the Baldwins' adult son, Matthew.

"It's very sad to know what he is now versus what could happen later, but I wanted to do everything I could for him, Connie Baldwin said.

For Likens, the prospect of developing Huntington's is something he's lived with for most of his life - children of parents with the disease have a 50 percent chance of developing it themselves.

"I kind of figured I was going to have it, he said. "I was about 10 years old when [my mom] started showing symptoms.

Suzanne Luck, who runs the Medical Foster Home Program, said the cost of the program is covered for veterans who served during war. As an Operation Enduring Freedom veteran, Likens, who served two tours in Afghanistan and one in Iraq, has his foster home care covered.

"Medically, they just have to have need, to have someone manage their care, Luck said. "Right now, the Huntington program has 18 veterans in 10 homes, and the Charleston program has five homes with six veterans, and we're trying to grow.

Each veteran receives in-home care from medical staff with the Huntington VA's Home-Based Primary Care treatment team, as well as around-the-clock care from their family. According to Luck, the program's caregivers are heavily vetted, to make sure they're dedicated to helping the veterans they care for, and the program fills an important niche for veterans who don't have anyone to care for them and don't want to enter a larger hospice facility. …

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