When a light goes out in a community ? | Off Deadline | Jay Thorwaldson | Palo Alto Online |


Local Blogs

By Jay Thorwaldson

When a light goes out in a community ?

Uploaded: Dec 9, 2008

The death of Phyllis Seidman in early December has prompted scores of comments in the Town Square online forum, uniformly expressing deep sadness whether or not people knew her personally or just had seen her cruising around town in her wheelchair accompanied by her fluffy white Samoyed dog, Sintah.

Seidman's loss also is a personal one, dating back for me to the early 1980s when she helped with art exhibits at the Palo Alto Medical Foundation when I was public affairs director there. I have paused more than once while helping compile the news report on her death, and comments of people close to her reflecting facets of her life.

Some comments on Town Square veered into debating about SUVs and safety of intersections in Palo Alto, especially for children or persons in wheelchairs. Some bewailed driver carelessness and irresponsibility.

The distraught driver of the Toyota Highlander told police she just didn't see Seidman as she drove across Embarcadero Road at Cowper Street as Seidman was crossing Cowper at 3:15 p.m. Dec. 2. Seidman died three hours later, her daughter Jennifer reported.

But sadness was a universal theme of the online discussion. The family is planning a memorial service in January, allowing time for her relatives to gather.

Shortly after Phyllis was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis, after noticing distressing extreme fatigue and loss of control, she visited my office at PAMF to inform me she could no longer help much with the exhibits. A number of hard years followed for her, but we kept in touch.

Then one day she rolled into my office with a white ball of fluff on her lap, her new puppy, Sintah (although I have seen several spellings of the name). Soon Sintah grew into a bouncy teenager who liked to chew on my hand in greeting -- he soon grew out of that in favor of a more mature tail-wagging. He became a joy and companion to Phyllis.

In 1993, Phyllis arrived at my office one day to inform me that she had been doing some research and found that the foundation had 187 MS patients (not counting others in the area) but that there was no support group anywhere in the Midpeninsula region. She reminded me that travel was often difficult, as many were unable to drive, so most were denied access to the kind of solace a good support group can provide.

I agreed with her on the need, and together we visited Joan Jack, then the manager of patient education for the foundation. She also agreed on the need and we set about trying to figure out how -- and where -- to provide a group. Still at 300 Homer Ave., the foundation had limited space, but Joan came up with the idea of holding the group in the main clinic lobby, after the clinic closed. We hired a facilitator to help with the early meetings, and Education Division staff helped by making copies and mailing out announcements of special talks and presentations.

"We were there to support her, but she was the driving force," Joan remembers of her spirit. It was almost as if her wheelchair had four-wheel drive, forging ahead in spite of difficult terrain.

Phyllis, undaunted by the drafty and cavernous space, created a warm circle of support and outreach that touched initially scores and later hundreds of persons. Ultimately, she traveled around the United States speaking about MS and the need for person-to-person support for a condition that only those who have it can truly appreciate.

The local group still exists 15 years later.

Sintah died a happy old age late this year, and the thought has crossed my mind that perhaps, just perhaps his bright white presence might have increased Phyllis's visibility that fateful afternoon in early December. I find it difficult to too-quickly blame the driver, a woman who reportedly had her 10-year-old son with her. And it's fruitless to engage in debates about SUVs, their drivers or whether a Highlander is defined as an SUV.

Some attention might be paid to intersection safety citywide, but everyone adopting safer-driving habits would be a wish granted by a fairy godmother.

What is important was Phyllis the person, a beacon of bright spirit despite her personal travails, challenges and physical afflictions, someone who loved art deeply but most of all cared for people.

When I foolishly broke an ankle in the mid-1990s, a serious break caused by an ill-advised jump from a low branch of an oak tree three miles above the San Pablo Reservoir late one afternoon, she quickly offered me her old wheelchair. A welder friend adapted it to keep my leg elevated and provide me with a padded battering ram with which to open doors. Phyllis had graduated to an electric model chair.

The two or three months I navigated around using that device convinced me that everyone should try one. That applies particularly to those who designed the floppy front-wheel steering method that drags you toward the gutter in the least slant of a sidewalk -- or which stops one cold at the merest displacement of a sidewalk by a tree root, of which Palo Alto has many. I would also have those who maintain city sidewalks enjoy the experience.

All who have shared their personal memories of Phyllis on Palo Alto Online share a bond and a loss, of which I'm proud to be one.

Thank you, Phyllis.