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Navy vet with amnesia leaves hospital for homeless shelter

Michael Boatwright woke from a coma speaking only Swedish

Aug. 7, 2013 - 03:12PM   |  
Michael Boatwright, who refers to himself as Johan Ek after being found unconscious in a motel room, has been released from the Desert Regional Medical Center in Palm Springs, Calif., to a homeless shelter.
Michael Boatwright, who refers to himself as Johan Ek after being found unconscious in a motel room, has been released from the Desert Regional Medical Center in Palm Springs, Calif., to a homeless shelter. (Jay Calderon/The Palm Springs, Calif., Desert Sun)
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PALM SPRINGS, CALIF. — Swedish-speaking amnesia patient Michael Boatwright moved into a homeless shelter Tuesday after five months in a hospital.

Boatwright, 61, walked out of Desert Regional Medical Center with a backpack and a duffel bag just before 4 p.m. A taxi, coordinated by the hospital, took him to Roy’s Desert Resource Center in north Palm Springs, where shelter staff welcomed him.

A Desert Regional spokesman said the hospital settled on releasing Boatwright to the homeless shelter after neither his family nor the Veterans Affairs Department was willing to take him in. Case management workers have been searching for a safe way to release Boatwright for months.

“Ultimately, the hospital is trying to do the right thing in this case. It is an unusual case, and we were trying to do the right thing,” said Richard Ramhoff, hospital spokesman. “I think we’ve got the best outcome we can possibly do for Michael. I can’t say enough about Roy’s.”

Boatwright appeared mostly emotionless as he left the hospital. When questioned in English by a Desert Sun reporter, Boatwright said he didn’t understand.

Boatwright spoke once more after the taxi dropped him off, as he sat waiting in the lobby of the homeless shelter. “Thank you,” he said, glancing up at a reporter who waved goodbye. This is one of the few phases Boatwright says in English.

Boatwright was found unconscious in a Palm Springs motel room Feb. 28. He had flown from China to Palm Springs a few days prior, destitute and depressed by the remarriage of his ex-wife, banking on long-shot hopes of landing a job as a tennis coach. A friend in China, Gifford Searls, bought Boatwright a plane ticket to Palm Springs in hopes his troubled friend would find a fresh start in the desert.

When Boatwright woke in the hospital, he insisted he had lost his memory and forgotten how to speak English. He was soon diagnosed with dissociative amnesia, which is a form of spontaneous memory loss without injury or illness. He had remained at the hospital since, penniless and uninsured, absorbing hospital resources.

Ramhoff said Boatwright’s five-month stay cost the hospital a “considerable amount” but declined to release a figure.

“We don’t discuss bills of individuals and I don’t think we want to break that policy here as well,” Ramhoff said.

The Desert Sun broke the story of Boatwright’s peculiar case July 7. After the story was picked up by sister paper USA TODAY, the Hollywood-style amnesia story quickly captivated readers around the globe. A follow-up story by The Desert Sun located Boatwright’s sister, Michelle Brewer, a Louisiana woman who had lost contact with her brother a decade beforehand.

After the discovery of Boatwright’s sister, hospital staff reached out to the patient’s family, hoping they could provide a home for their long-lost relative. Unfortunately, taking Boatwright in “was not a possibility,” Ramhoff said. He declined to provide more details.

Brewer could not be reached at her Louisiana home.

The hospital also reached out to the Veterans Affairs Department, but the agency ruled that inpatient care was not justified in Boatwright’s case, Ramhoff said. Boatwright is a Navy veteran who served during the Vietnam War. In 2008, Boatwright received services for homeless veterans in San Francisco.

The hospital was not comfortable sending Boatwright to the homeless shelter until it had eliminated the possibility of releasing him to family or a veteran’s facility, Ramhoff said. The hospital also attempted to get disability benefits for Boatwright from the Social Security Administration but has not received a response.

Roy’s permits homeless clients like Boatwright to stay at the shelter for three to four months, said Aurora Wilson, director of community resources for Coachella Valley Association of Governments, which administers the facility.

During Boatwright’s stay, case management employees will try to find him more permanent housing and employment, Wilson said. If it is determined that Boatwright needs mental health services, he can tap into a county clinic that is next to the shelter, Wilson said.

This entire process will be complicated by Boatwright’s amnesia, and the fact that the shelter doesn’t employ anyone who speaks Swedish, Wilson said. Roy’s has never housed anyone like Boatwright before, Wilson said, but she was optimistic the shelter could help the troubled man.

“We are, I think, the perfect place for this particular client,” Wilson said. “Because, as you know, Roy’s takes those clients that find themselves in unusual situations — without resources, without a home, without anywhere to go. We provide an environment where clients feel safe … and where they will be cared for.”

Kelman also writes for The (Palm Springs, Calif.) Desert Sun.

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