The aromatic mingled smell of tomato, onion, garlic, sausage and cheese drew a small group of vets living in Independence Hall to the kitchen where Jerry Schusted was putting on oven mitts to draw a large baking pan from the oven.
“Oh, man, that smells good,” one said.
“Yeah, but it’s not for us,” another bemoaned.
The cheese-smothered pasta was Jerry’s lasagna for nurses at St. Vincent Healthcare in Billings.
“I don’t have much I can do to thank them, but I can take them this,” he said, pulling the pan from the oven. None of the spectators complained.
“They were so good to me when I was in the hospital, this is the least I can do,” he said.
In a way, given Jerry’s circumstances, it’s the most he can do.
Jerry, who served nine years in the Navy, including in the Aleutian Islands, wound up in the hospital three times in the past two years because of Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD). The first time, in March 2012, he nearly died. His heart and lungs were so damaged he had 60 pounds of liquid build up in his body. He lost his job in the receiving department of a major retailer.
“I couldn’t lift anything. I could barely stand up,” he said.
He had worked all his life, mostly as a restaurant and hotel manager. When the recession hit, those jobs vanished.
He had bought a home, but, unemployed and unable to make his mortgage payments, he lost it.
He had no family and he couldn’t prevail on friends for a place to stay except for short periods.
Suddenly, as his medical conditions overpowered him, he “lost everything. I came within an inch of being homeless and with winter and my vulnerability because of my lungs, there’s no doubt I would have died,” he said. “That’s when I was told to go see Scott Powers (the program director for Volunteers of America Northern Rockies) who was able to get me into Independence Hall, and it saved my life.”
Jerry was hospitalized two more times at St. Vincent Healthcare, in September 2013 and in March 2014.
“If not for Independence Hall, I would have been living on the streets, homeless and exposed, and I would have died,” he said.
Independence Hall is a 20-bed transitional residence built in the Billings Heights in 2009 for honorably discharged homeless veterans. Thanks to VOANR and the caregivers at St. Vincent Healthcare, Jerry was saved.
“Those nurses are the greatest people I ever met,” he said. “They were always ready with a smile. I tried not to be a bother or to bug them, but they always checked to see I was OK.”
The Sisters of Charity of Leavenworth, which operates St. V’s, forgave some of his hospitalization; Volunteers of America provided a place for him to live, to obtain Veterans Administration benefits he was entitled to, and to get healthy.
Now, with a small disability income and medical bills to pay, Jerry struggles to make ends meet. His prescriptions are discounted by the Veterans Administration, but he still must pay some of that cost. He is proud he is able to pay some rent at Independence Hall, diminish his debts, and, when he can, and save a little money to buy the ingredients for lasagna.
“I don’t know when I can take lasagna to them, so they don’t know when I’m coming. It depends on how long it takes me to save up to buy the ingredients.
But when I can bake a pan, I just drive down there and take it up to the third floor where I was cared for.”
He usually arrives when there’s a shift change so no one makes a big deal about his gift.
“They’re too busy so I just drop it off and hope they enjoy it.”
Jerry may not have been around after he delivered his pasta, but the nurses at St. Vincent were elated with the gourmet gift, according to 3T Nurse Manager Debbie Rang.
“The nurses remember Jerry well and said he was so very kind and appreciative,” Rang said.
“In addition, I talked to another nurse who was here the night the lasagna was delivered and he said that lasagna was a godsend that night. Our usual food vendor downstairs ended up being closed that night and many of the nurses had not brought a lunch figuring they would grab something downstairs,” Rang said. “The nurses on duty said the lasagna was awesome and it couldn’t have been timed better with the Bistro being closed. We would have had some hungry nurses that night but for Jerry. He became a ‘lasagna angel’ for our staff.”