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Thursday, March 9, 2006 09:25 pm

American girl

She was a patriot who devoted her life to caring for others — but her country deserted her, just when she needed it most

Last spring, after cancer had spread from her breast to her bones, Patricia Clink applied for Social Security disability benefits. She had no doubt that she was eligible. After all, she’d been paying into the system since the age of 15, when she got her first job, at an Illinois State Fair concession stand. Her disability was equally verifiable: Months earlier, tests had shown cancer in Patricia’s liver, lungs, and pelvis. The illness had forced her to quit her job as a nurse at St. John’s Hospital, where she had spent 27 years caring for heart patients. Now, her insurance was about to run out; she needed Medicare to take care of her medical bills. The response came quickly: Her claim was denied — not because of any question of her disability but because the Social Security Administration questioned her citizenship. The daughter of an American soldier and a Polish labor-camp survivor, Patricia was born in Schweinfurt, Germany, where her dad was stationed in 1950. She came to the United States in 1952 aboard the USNS Gen. Harry Taylor (in her passport photo, she’s a cherubic toddler) and had lived here ever since. Patricia belonged to a family of patriots. Her father, John T. Fagan Jr., served 20 years in the Army. Her mother, Stefania Horoschiefska Fagan, was featured in the newspaper enjoying cookies and punch with the Springfield Women’s Club after being sworn in as a U.S. citizen in 1958. Patricia’s older brother, Johnny — also born in Germany — served in the tank corps with U.S. forces in Vietnam. Patricia was no less patriotic. She would often take her son, Matthew, with her to the polls on Election Day. She kept up with politics and sometimes voiced her conservative viewpoint (always politely) on Internet forums or talk radio shows. When President George W. Bush deployed American forces to Iraq in 2003, Patricia was the first on her block to plant a “Support Our Troops” sign in her yard. The letter from the Social Security Administration suggesting that she wasn’t a true American hit her like a punch in the belly. “She cried,” says her sister Nanette Valenti. “She sat there and cried with me.”
Patricia knew that she was a U.S. citizen. As she had once written to her online cancer support group, “I’m 100 percent American.” But proving this simple fact turned out to be more of a struggle than she or her sister ever imagined.
The problem dated back to 1947. That’s the year Patricia’s parents married, according to family lore as well as newspaper notices of their birthdays and deaths. Nanette distinctly remembers her parents celebrating their 30th wedding anniversary just as she graduated from high school, in 1977. But there was always a tinge of mystery around family history. The kids never knew where vital records were kept. Indeed, when Johnny enlisted in the Army, his parents claimed that he had no birth certificate (the Army shipped him to Vietnam anyway). A few years after their mother died, their father finally managed to tell them the truth. “This was a story that my parents never wanted us to know,” Nanette says. “This was stuff that we had to almost force my dad to talk about. It was a source of embarrassment for him and my mother.” They had met in Karlsruhe, Germany, shortly after American forces liberated the Nazi labor camp where Stefania Horoschiefska was imprisoned. Steffi, as she was called, showed up at the military mess hall where John Fagan was a cook, and she made quite an impression. “The only story I remember hearing was that the first meal when she was there, she ate a dozen eggs,” Nanette recalls. “Fried eggs. With all the trimmings. She was just that hungry.” She didn’t speak English; the cook didn’t speak German. Mutual attraction motivated them to learn each other’s language, and before long, they decided to wed. Steffi, though, lacked the proper papers, and U.S. military officials wouldn’t sanction her marriage to John. The couple found housing off base and started a family. “To everybody else, they were married,” Nanette says. John T. Fagan III, or “Johnny,” was born in 1948; Patricia was born Jan. 5, 1950. Before their dad’s tour of duty ended, he filed papers with the U.S. High Commissioner for Germany claiming paternity of both children. When his tour of duty ended in 1952, he was able to bring his young family to the United States. They arrived in New York on March 2 and married — officially — three months later. They settled in Fagan’s hometown, Springfield. In 1958, in a Chicago ceremony conducted by U.S. District Judge Charles G. Briggle, Steffi became a naturalized citizen. By law, her children under the age of 16 automatically became citizens along with her. Johnny and Patricia — just 10 and 8, respectively, at the time — qualified. They also had a little sister, Brenda, born here in 1953. Nanette was born in 1959. Steffi never lost her thick Polish accent. Nanette recalls how her mother constantly confused her W’s and V’s, calling odd people “vierdos.” But aside from occasional stories of Christmas Mass in Poland and a pronounced pride in Pope John Paul II, the kids were given a distinctly American upbringing. “That’s why our names are Johnny, Pat, Brenda, and Nanette. Our names are very American,” Nanette says. “My mother was extremely proud of being an American — extremely, because of all she went through and all her family went through. She would always tell people, ‘This is the best place for you to be. You might have problems, but you have more opportunities here. You’re free.’ ”
Gary Compton met Patricia in 1969, on his return from Vietnam. His then-wife and Patricia had become close friends while working together as hospital aides. Patricia married Ed Clink in 1974, and the two couples enjoyed barbecuing and taking trips together. When the Comptons divorced, Patricia stayed friends with both. “She didn’t take sides,” Compton says. “She was just Pat, a good friend to anybody.” Doris Schaddel was a nurse at St. John’s when Patricia came to work there as an R.N. in 1978. They worked the night shift together for about a decade, and Schaddel says that Patricia’s personality suited her profession, especially work on the hospital’s coronary-pulmonary floor. Located down the hall from the intensive-care unit, the patients in this section were usually recovering from open-heart surgery or cardiac arrest. “It was a very intense department,” Schaddel says. “You didn’t sit; you were busy.” The nurses’ station had telemetry screens showing each patient’s EKG data, and Patricia could spot changes quickly. “She was very smart, very on top of it,” Schaddel says. “She was a diligent worker and a very good person. That was her nature — very comforting. A perfect nurse.” Patricia’s priorities shifted slightly in 1990, when son Matthew was born. He became, by all accounts, the center of her life. “When she became a mother, she became 100 percent devoted to motherhood,” Compton recalls. “Everything she did was with her child in mind — everything.” Patricia’s response to her original cancer diagnosis was really a testament to her concern for Matthew, Compton says. Without hesitation, Patricia underwent a mastectomy and chemotherapy, fighting off the disease in the best way she knew how. “Her main wish was to survive long enough to raise her child,” Compton says. Matthew, who was 4 at the time, only remembers his mom explaining why she was losing her hair. After treatment, Patricia was pronounced cured, and life went back to normal. Separated from her husband, she took Matthew on fishing and camping trips and made him come along when she volunteered to stack sandbags during the Beardstown and Riverton floods. She enrolled him in the Boy Scouts and signed him up for band. She didn’t seem to mind when he played his electric guitar — really loudly — because, he says, she was “cool.” Her own hobbies were quieter — quilting, reading, volunteering at New Salem, collecting teapots and cookbooks, puttering around the kitchen. She joined an online support group for cancer patients and their families and quickly became a respected “elder” of the group. Tina Collette, one of the founders of the support network, describes Patricia as “smart, loving and tolerant,” a contributor known for her good humor and compassion. “She would share her personal phone number with a member when they were particularly hurting,” Collette says. “We all know that is an Internet no-no, but her compassion outweighed her concern for personal safety.” One of Patricia’s earliest posts, written in 1999, was an impromptu homage to her mother, who had died in 1984. “I’ve been thinking about my mother a lot today. What a remarkable woman she was,” Patricia wrote. She went on to describe how Steffi — a Catholic — was enslaved during World War II. In her hometown of Lwów, Poland, Nazi soldiers rounded up laborers by demanding one member from each family. The soldiers wanted to take Steffi’s older sister, but she had just had a baby. So Steffi, then 16, volunteered to go in her place. “Oddly enough, that selfless gesture probably saved her life,” Patricia wrote. Steffi spent several years working under “the most horrible conditions imaginable” but later learned that her parents and siblings had been killed when the Nazis had caught the family hiding a Jew. In a later post, involving an exchange of Norwegian recipes, she gave another brief version of her family’s history. “I’m 100 percent American,” she wrote. “Born in Germany. Irish on my father’s side and Polish/Ukrainian on my mother’s . . . .” When Bush sent troops to Iraq, the cancer group’s online discussion turned political, and Patricia weighed in. “You have the right to dissent,” she wrote in March 2003. “In fact, you have a duty to dissent if you think that the government is wrong. BTW, you can thank a soldier for that. However, you have to accept . . . the fact that many Americans will consider you unpatriotic for protesting at a time when this nation is at war, her sons and daughters are in harm’s way in an attempt to liberate an oppressed people . . . ” But as the discussion grew more heated over the next few days, she reminded members that their criticism could hurt anyone who had a friend or relative deployed overseas.  “This list is about support,” she wrote. “That includes support for those people who are concerned about their loved ones who are at this moment in harm’s way. People who are not only fighting cancer but also having to deal with worrying about loved ones in the military do not need to read negative statements about the military or the government of the United States. We need to support and comfort these people just as we support and comfort those with cancer.”
Eventually, Patricia’s disease returned. She had been healthy for eight years — or maybe not quite that long. Looking back, her sister Nanette says that Patricia occasionally complained of back and neck pain but always blamed it on muscle strain. Besides, they were preoccupied with taking care of their father, whose health began to deteriorate in 2002. Only after his death in February 2004 did Patricia take time to consult a doctor. By then, the cancer had spread throughout her body. She underwent chemotherapy, which obliterated the spot on her lung and significantly reduced the cancer in her liver. “They knew it wasn’t anything curable,” Nanette says, “but they made us believe that she would be around to see Matthew graduate from high school.” He was 14 at the time. “She didn’t tell me a lot, just that it was back,” he says. By October 2004, though, Patricia was forced to stop working. She become so frail that Nanette and her family moved into Patricia’s house to take care of her and Matthew. Yet Patricia maintained her sense of humor. When cancer cells clouded her eyes, altering her color perception, she entertained the family with descriptions of what she could see. “Yellow looked pink, so construction signs looked pink, and she said school buses looked awfully funny,” Nanette recalls. Tina Collette, who had a virtual sisterhood with Patricia through the online cancer-support group, called to check on her friend because she hadn’t posted in a while. “She had a happy lilt-song quality to her voice,” Collette says. When asked how she was doing, Patricia said not so good. “She explained that the cancer was back and she could not see. She did not dwell on the negative,” Collette says, “although I had a huge lump in my throat and wanted to cry. She continued on her bubbly way, talking about how Matthew was and telling me about all their animals and pets, that her sister had moved in with them and how thankful she was for that. She always looked on the bright side of things.” In the spring of 2005, Patricia realized that her insurance coverage was due to lapse. She needed Medicare. On June 10, she applied for Social Security disability and soon found out that the government needed proof of her citizenship. The family was surprised but certain that this was just a bureaucratic paperwork snafu. “We were joking with her, telling her she might get deported back to Germany. She loved hearing that,” Matthew recalls. Brother-in-law Jim Clink suggested that she would qualify for German social security. The idea that Patricia was anything other than American seemed amusingly absurd. But after she submitted more family records, she received another statement of denial from Social Security. “After reviewing the information and contacting our regional office for further guidance, we have determined the information submitted is not sufficient enough for our office to determine your citizenship status,” the field-office manager wrote on July 15. “The District Court in Springfield, IL, was able to show that your mother’s naturalization date was May 19, 1958, but they could not state your name was on this certificate. You will need to contact the Immigration and Naturalization Service in Chicago IL for a determination.” She sought the help of her congressman, U.S. Rep. Ray LaHood, whose staff assistant, Judy Hinds, has 10 years experience sorting out bureaucratic bungles. Patricia provided a newspaper article with the headline “35 Foreign Born Made U.S. Citizens” and a picture of her mother, dressed in her Sunday best, having punch at a reception. “The article gave me a start,” Hinds says. “The part she gave me, someone had just torn it from a newspaper.” She called the National Archives, and “two nice clerks” located Stefania Horoschiefska Fagan’s citizenship petition and mailed her daughter Patricia an archival copy — complete with a red satin ribbon and gold seal. Patricia’s name and birth information — “Patricia(f)1/5/50–Germany” — is clearly visible on the first page. The day that document arrived, Nanette says, she cooked hot dogs and apple pie to celebrate: “We had a very American meal, to symbolize her citizenship. We thought for sure these papers proved that she was a citizen.” LaHood’s assistant, Hinds, thought so, too. “Yes, I did, because Patricia’s name was in the papers. It had John and Patricia and Brenda,” she says. “But this did not satisfy Social Security.” The letter that came with the document demanded further proof: “It appears . . . that Ms. Clink derived United States citizenship through her mother’s naturalization,” the director of congressional relations wrote. “For official determination of her citizenship, however, she must file the enclosed Form N-600, ‘Application for Certificate of Citizenship.’ If her citizenship is verified, she will be issued a certificate of citizenship, which serves as evidence of her United States citizenship.”
Then Patricia found an easier way. Someone at the Social Security office told her that instead of using the Form N-600, she could apply for a passport and use it to prove her citizenship. The passport process was supposed to be faster, less cumbersome, and hundreds of dollars cheaper than the Form N-600. Nanette now realizes that choice may have been a mistake. But she was dealing with her “big sister,” the same one who had babysat her and mentored her all these years. “There were certain things I didn’t try to do because I didn’t want to take control away from her,” Nanette says. Besides, Nanette was more concerned with Patricia’s health. She was finding excuses to postpone appointments with her eye specialist and her oncologist. When Nanette was finally able to coax her sister to see the doctor, he ordered more tests. Patricia, however, persuaded him to let her enjoy the approaching holidays. They scheduled a bone scan for early January. “When I got home from the doctor’s office that day, I told my husband, ‘Something’s up,’ ” Nanette recalls. “She was just too insistent [about delaying the tests].” As a nurse, Patricia knew more about her condition than the average patient would. Some of her last messages to her online support group contain bleak hints, artfully disguised with good cheer. “I have a bunch of hospital scrubs I can’t use anymore since I can’t work and they’re too big for me now,” she wrote on Sept. 3, in a message to support group members near Houston. “I know that there will be nurses from the Hurricane [Katrina] area who are in Texas now and will need changes of clothing . . . . If I send you my scrubs, can you get them to where they are needed?” Gary Compton, her friend of more than 30 years, noticed the same realistic but upbeat attitude in Patricia. “She understood that it was probably terminal. She was trying to make her friends feel better,” he says. “She’d say, ‘It’s OK. I’m not afraid. I understand what’s going on; I just want to make sure everything’s done for Matthew.’ She accepted it with a lot of grace.” In December, Jim Clink went with her to the county courthouse to submit paperwork for a passport. “We sat up there for an hour and half, filling out the forms, getting all this stuff ready to go to the federal government — and she was really weak then,” he recalls. Less than two weeks later, on Dec. 30, Nanette took Patricia to the hospital. Tests showed that the cancer had taken over Patricia’s liver and spread to her brain. A nurse realized that Patricia had never gotten the traditional retirement party when her illness forced her to leave her job at St. John’s. Because Patricia collected teapots, the nurse organized a tea party. The hospital provided cookies, and more than a dozen people joined Patricia for tea in her hospital room. Doris Schaddel, the nurse who had shared the night shift with Patricia for decades, says that the fete was timed
“It was very nice,” she says. “Thank God they did it when they did.” After little more than a week in the hospital, Patricia moved to a hospice. Three days later, on Jan. 16, she died. On Jan. 19, Nanette received a letter from the Chicago Passport Agency, requesting still more proof of Patricia’s citizenship. “Please submit your original Certificate of Naturalization, which will be returned to you with your completed passport,” the letter demands. “This application is denied unless you adequately address the requirements stated above . . .” Nanette finds this bureaucratic paper chase infuriating. “They want her original naturalization papers? They already have those papers!” she exclaims. “My mother was able to collect her Social Security before she died. Why can’t my sister?” LaHood’s office is still trying to help because, Hinds says, this case “kinda tears me up.” “You hate to get attached to people, but you can’t help it,” she says. “Patricia was just a special, super-nice lady.” Her remains now rest in Oak Ridge Cemetery in a plot shadowed — literally — by Lincoln’s tomb. “She liked that,” Nanette chuckles. So it’s too late for Patricia or even her son to receive funds; only her long-estranged husband would benefit. “I’m not doing any of this for the money. None of us would get the money,” Nanette says. “I’m doing it to prove that my sister was a citizen.”
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