News Article Details

Nicholas Homblette, Federal Way man with cerebral palsy, survived on the love of others

Seattle Times - 12/23/2017

Dec. 23--When Nicholas Homblette was in the hospital with bacterial pneumonia last year, he spent his 27th birthday surrounded by family, eating chocolate peanut-butter ice cream cake -- the same way he'd spent every birthday.

Saturday, the date of his cremation, would have been his 28th. But his family will still buy a cake and honor him -- a resilient man with cerebral palsy, raised by his blind grandmother, who inspired thousands of people around the country with his story.

In many ways, it's a love story -- the story of familial and community bonds that kept him alive for nearly all of his three decades before he died on Nov. 29.

"He was my life," his grandmother, Georgenne Harvey, said. "The first time I held him, he reached up and touched my cheek. It was like he was saying, 'Here I am, Grandma!' "

Portraits on the walls of his childhood home in Federal Way show a pale, slim-faced boy with calm, brown eyes and striking eyebrows. He liked to play with miniature firetrucks and light-up toys. Sometimes one of Nick's favorite caregivers would prop up his tablet and help him play the popular game Fruit Ninja, guiding his fingers to slash the flying fruit on the screen.

His evenings were spent in the living room armchair next to his grandmother, quietly observing the family members who visited, watching the news or shouting "Ball!" excitedly when the Seahawks played.

At 13, he was honored as Sacajawea Middle School's most inspirational student. Five years later, he graduated from Federal Way High School.

Doctors had told his grandmother he wouldn't live past 18. She ignored them. She changed his diapers and dressed, washed and fed him until her knees and shoulders gave out.

"I wasn't going to let him go that easy," said Harvey.

Violent turning point

Things might have turned out differently if Nick hadn't met such brutal beginnings.

Melody Stewart, his mother, was just 17 when Nick was born. She left Nick's biological father shortly after, taking Nick and his older sister, Raychelle. While Stewart worked shifts at Skipper's, the seafood fast-food chain, she left her children at a friend's place in Queen Anne, where a man she was dating at the time also lived.

One day while Stewart was at work, the man beat Nick, striking his head, the family says. Nick was just a few months old at the time, at a critical stage in his brain development. Stewart called the police, who filed a report, but she says prosecutors declined to pursue the case for lack of evidence. (He had no signs of visible injury, his mother said.)

"I got him out of there as soon as I realized what happened," said Stewart, now 45. But it was too late.

A few weeks later, the family noticed Nick had difficulty moving. When the cerebral-palsy diagnosis came, Stewart was already pregnant with a third child. She signed guardianship over to Harvey, her mother.

"It was the hardest thing I ever had to do," Stewart said. She has a tattoo on her right arm: vines and lilies bordering the names of her four children. Next to it, the word "family."

Harvey says Nick was a calling from God.

"I decided I would quit my job and take care of him 'cause God wanted me to," said Harvey, now 71. "It's good that God wanted me to because it was a lot of work."

Against the advice of his doctors, who said Nick should be institutionalized, she was Nick's sole guardian until five years ago, when the state forced her into retirement because of her health. It's hard for her to walk now, she said. For much of his childhood, she carried Nick from room to room.

Full-time caregivers were sent to the family about three years ago. John Clark, who worked evenings taking care of Nick, said he still can't believe Harvey cared for him as long as she did.

Harvey grew up attending schools for the blind as a child, where she says she spent a lot of time away from her mother. She never wanted Nick to ache for his family like she did.

"I wanted him to know he was surrounded by love," she said.

But in the background of this love story, the family's financial situation was -- and still is -- dire. The Centers for Disease Control estimated the lifetime cost of caring for someone with cerebral palsy at roughly $1 million in 2003, or about $1.3 million in today's dollars.

The state covered Nick's medical bills and, later on, the cost for caregivers to provide round-the-clock care at home. But with Harvey having no income other than Social Security and disability checks, the two relied on the help of family members and good Samaritans to get by.

In 2003, when a nurse at Nick's school set up a fund to help Harvey pay for a van with a wheelchair lift, The Seattle Times wrote a story about the family, which inspired readers across the country to donate more than $70,000 ("I was flabbergasted," Harvey said). A few years later, when Nick's spine grew into a painful C-shape, Seattle Children's hospital donated spinal surgery.

Nick's younger half-siblings, Doug and Amethyst Lenz, helped out with Nick from a young age. To help with the bills, Doug started paying rent at 16 -- $200 a month -- while living at his grandmother's house. Amethyst, who lives in the room across from Nick's at Harvey's home, pitched in with caregiving. Anna Ferris, a family friend, would come over to clean and vacuum the carpets. Neighbors drove Nick to and from community events, school and church.

Throughout his life, Nick's mother was never more than a few miles away -- and for the last five years was living with Harvey and Nick -- though she was unable to help much financially while raising three other children. She, too, had to quit her job cleaning houses to take over caregiving for Nick when Harvey could no longer manage.

They scraped by for nearly 25 years, but as Nick's health began to deteriorate, so did the family finances.

Worsening situation

Nick's room in Harvey's house is at the end of a short hallway lined with his school photos. His mom has found it difficult to enter since he died.

It has blue walls, and a hospital bed takes up most of the space, with a TV suspended from the ceiling. But save for that and the elaborate medical equipment, it looks like the room of a '90s kid. One wall is covered with a red, race-car blanket. The shelves are lined with firetrucks, Nick's favorite toy, and Harry Potter DVDs.

For the last few months he was alive, he spent up to 18 hours a day in this room, according to his mother.

Pneumonia set in last winter, keeping him hospitalized through the holidays.

Around the same time, Harvey began to miss her mortgage payments. There were the costs of driving Nick to various doctors and specialists, and the family's power bill soared to $300 a month, the expense of running an oxygen and suction machine for Nick, whose lungs were filling with fluid.

Harvey and her late husband bought their small, one-story home in 1997 with Nick in mind, selling their trailer to come up with the money. Extra money from donations went to installing a patient lift -- a system that allows caregivers to transport Nick by placing him in a sling and moving him along a track built into the ceiling. Rebuilding Together, a nonprofit, remodeled her bathroom to make it accessible, free of charge. Stewart, Harvey and Amethyst -- and six dogs -- still live there.

Foreclosure is likely imminent if they miss another payment, which is due shortly after the New Year's. But for now, the family is focused on the memorial for Nick, the date of which has not been set.

His mother doesn't have any grand ideas.

A eulogy would be nice, she said. A space to gather and feed everyone who cares about him, which Harvey said would be provided by Good Shepherd Church in Federal Way. A space for his ashes in the same North Seattle cemetery where her grandparents are.

They had to hold off planning for about a month until they could collect the $614 needed to cremate him.

"I just want him to be peaceful," Stewart said.

Harvey says she knows Nick is in a better place, where he can walk and talk and laugh. Stewart hopes it's true.

Dahlia Bazzaz: dbazzaz@seattletimes.com. On Twitter @dahliabazzaz

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