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Grant High classmates find a long-lost friend -- paralyzed

March 27, 2009|Bob Pool

Pat Chawki's classmates thought he was dead -- they'd even memorialized him two years ago at their 20th high school reunion.

But when one Grant High School alum wrote to Chawki's sister to express her condolences, she learned that the popular former baseball star lay paralyzed and nearly forgotten in a Canoga Park nursing home.

Laurie Green discovered that for the last nine years, Chawki has suffered from a rare disorder that renders him fully cognitive, but unable to move or speak. Because he cannot talk or write, he was unable to tell his family how to reach his friends.

Green, 38, of Studio City, immediately went to the nursing home. She snapped pictures of the 41-year-old Chawki and posted them on Facebook, explaining to friends that their buddy was still very much alive -- and very lonely.

Soon, a parade of former classmates was making regular trips to visit him. On one visit, Green noticed that Chawki could move his thumb up and down.

Taking a cue from the movie "The Diving Bell and the Butterfly," about a man with a similar disorder called "locked-in syndrome" who wrote a book by blinking his eyes, Green devised an alphabet poster that friends could use to help him communicate.

His old buddies were stunned to find that Chawki was not only alive but was alert and mentally active. With his thumb, he slowly used the poster to spell out: "I love you all."

"At the 20th reunion, people said he had a brain tumor and had passed away. That's all we knew -- that he'd passed away," said former Grant High baseball player Harlan Berk, now a 40-year-old charter fishing boat owner who lives in San Diego.

"When I saw the pictures Laurie had posted on the computer, I sat there for an hour in tears. I called my mother to tell her that Pat Chawki is still alive. I called up all the other team members -- these are friends you have for life."

Berk played first base on the Grant team. Chawki, described then by The Times as "a defensive specialist with a good arm and good speed in the outfield," played left field. The team was propelled to the city championship in 1986 by pitching standout Rod Beck.

Classmate Stacey Beck, 40, said she almost fell out of her chair when she read Green's Internet posting.

Her husband, who had gone on from high school to pitch for the San Francisco Giants, Chicago Cubs, Boston Red Sox and San Diego Padres, died in 2007 from an accidental drug overdose.

"I was amazed someone could kind of fall off the planet," said Beck, of Scottsdale, Ariz. "If Rod were alive he'd be doing everything he could to help Pat. If we don't have help, we don't have anything."

Friend Stuart Schneiderman, a 43-year-old Manhattan trade association research director who had previously tried without success to track down Chawki, was also surprised to learn of the paralysis, apparently the result of brain damage brought on by hyper-acute multiple sclerosis.

"I wondered first whether I'd been better off if I hadn't learned this. But I'd rather know. I wrote a letter to him on his birthday and sent him some old Yankees baseball cards. I'm going out to California and visit him," Schneiderman said.

Friends who gathered at Chawki's room at Topanga Terrace for his birthday last month were in tears as Schneiderman's letter was read aloud.

Workers at the nursing home were puzzled when after all these years Chawki started having large numbers of visitors.

"Once there were 10 or 15 of his friends at the same time with him on the patio. The facility called and wanted to know what was going on. I told them that everybody had thought Patrick was dead, that I hadn't known how to contact them," said his mother, 72-year-old Rose Chawki of Van Nuys.

She takes the bus to visit her son three times a week and give him some physical therapy. Medicare and Medi-Cal pay for his nursing care but do not cover therapy.

That's why Green and her public relations business partner Tracy Rubin have organized a silent auction fundraiser for 7 p.m. today at the Gibson Musical Instruments Showroom at 9350 Civic Center Drive, Beverly Hills.

Proceeds from the $75 per person event will be channeled through a nonprofit group the pair have created and used for professional therapy for Chawki, they say.

"I told Pat the other day we're going to get him out of here," Green said.

"His thumb shot straight up."

--

bob.pool@latimes.com

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