Nurse Matches Man With Identity

The Ledger
April 2006
By Eric Pera


Nurse Matches Man With Identity
By Eric Pera
The Ledger
LAKELAND -- At the nursing home he was simply John Doe, a pleasant man in his mid-50s with the mental ability of a 4-year-old and graying, thinning hair.
He couldn't recall his own name or the names of relatives or where he'd come from.
At Valencia Hills, his home since Jan. 10, 2003, the staff and administrators changed hands with some frequency -- no one seemed overly concerned about the man whose identity remained a mystery. He possessed an identification card, but it turned out to be someone else's.
It wasn't until the nursing home hired Antonia Garcia, 30, as director of social services in September, that a search for the man's true identity began.
"I said he has to have family somewhere, somebody has got to miss him," Garcia said.
In February, the staff struck pay dirt on a Web site run by the North American Missing Persons Network.
Nurse Ede Mendez discovered the site using an Internet search engine, but with no knowledge of when the man had gone missing, she started with 2003, then worked back.
She concentrated on men missing from the Tampa Bay area because over the years, the man sometimes mentioned landmarks that staff recognized as being in Tampa.
What surprises everybody involved is that it took Mendez only 30 minutes to find her subject. He was much thinner in the photograph posted on the Internet, but Mendez recognized him instantly.
He is Edelmiro Navarro, 56, who had wandered away from a Tampa group home in November 2002 while doing yard work.
Known affectionately as Junior to his family, it wasn't the first time he'd wandered away from the Thatcher House, one of five group homes managed by Human Development Center Inc., a $2 million nonprofit agency serving the developmentally disabled.
"He would wander off a lot, but he always came back," said Shirley Hamstra of Riverview, Junior's sister.
She said her brother walked off from other group homes over the years with little or no trouble.
"Still, you would think they had some kind of security," Hamstra said. "I was always worried about those group homes."
James Bell, executive director of the Human Development Center that lost the man, could not be reached Wednesday for comment.
Despite being listed on several missing persons Web sites, including that of the Tampa Police Department, Junior's whereabouts remained unknown for more than three years.
Hamstra said she never was contacted by the state Department of Children & Families or its sister agency on Persons with Disabilities, which license and oversee group homes.
"We thought he was dead. Every time they found a body in a river, we called the mortuary," Hamstra said.
What she couldn't know was that her brother was very much alive in the comfort of Valencia Hills, a sprawling, 212-bed nursing home on Sleepy Hill Road near Lakeland Square.
"How he ended up in Lakeland I'll never know," said Hamstra, a rehabilitation technician at a nursing home in Sun City near Tampa.
This much is known -- in November 2002 he disappeared, and he arrived at Lakeland Regional Medical Center weeks later, haggard and in possession of identification belonging to a Pennsylvania man. How he got to the hospital isn't known.
On Jan. 10, 2003, the state transferred him to Valencia Hills, formerly Meadowview nursing home, most likely for lack of space at area group homes, which are in short supply. An employee at Valencia Hill said his chart showed that he had received a mental health evaluation at Peace River Center for Personal Development prior to his coming to the nursing home.
Four or five months later, the nursing home staff discovered the man named in the identification card was drawing veterans benefits, so they had his monthly checks directed to Lakeland for several months, said Gary West, administrator of Valencia Hills, who was not on staff at the time.
The disruption in checks caused the real Pennsylvania veteran to call the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, which notified the nursing home of the mistake, West said. "That's when we knew we didn't have (the right man)."
Mendez, the nurse at Valencia Hills, said she was surprised how easily he was identified once she started looking.
"It's so weird. I knew that they had fingerprinted him and done all these things to find his identity. I thought it was going to be like finding a needle in a haystack. There must have been a higher power involved."
West, the Valencia Hills administrator, said the agency that operates the Tampa group home will be by any day for Junior, who will be moved to a newly built group home, which has better security.
Hamstra said she was overcome with joy after receiving the news that her brother was alive and well. "I couldn't believe it, I was crying. I kept saying, `Are you sure it's him?' Then they put him on the phone and it was."