Kathy Felt had dreaded the moment for years. Then one day, it arrived: Her multiple sclerosis had progressed to the point that she was no longer able to pivot from her wheelchair into bed.
Frustrated and worried, Felt called one of her two grown sons to come over to her home in Sandy, Utah, and help lift her onto her queen-size mattress. The following morning, the other son came over to help get her out. Chad and Todd Felt were happy to help. After their parents divorced, they had grown up helping their mom clean, prepare meals and buy groceries.
“I’d taught them these life skills early on in case something happened to me,” said Felt, 66. Her own mother had succumbed to MS in 2008, “so I knew that anything could happen. But not being able to get into bed — that was a tough one.”
For two years, her sons dutifully stopped by after dinner or on their way to work in the morning to get Felt in and out of her wheelchair, but their mom could tell that it was taking a toll, even if they would never admit it. And somebody else had noticed, too.
Felt’s neighbor, Keith Pugmire, had seen Felt’s boys coming and going from the house and knew about her health challenges. As leader of the neighborhood Mormon congregation that Felt attended, he had watched the debilitating neurological disease slowly take away her mobility. First, it took Felt longer to walk around the neighborhood. Next, she needed a cane, followed by the occasional use of a wheelchair. Then she needed a power wheelchair, and was contemplating selling her house and moving into a nursing home.
In April 2008, Pugmire knocked on Felt’s door with a plan.
"There are lots of people who want to help,” he told her. “What if I told you that I had 40 to 50 men from church and from the neighborhood who are willing to take turns coming over to lift you into bed every night?”
"Oh, no you don't,” Felt replied, laughing.
“Oh, yes, I do,” said Pugmire, 65.
"Really? For how long?” Felt asked.
“For as long as it takes,” he said.
Pugmire, an accountant, explained that he would put out sign-up sheets at church and create a monthly schedule for men to come over and help, two at a time, every night at 9 (Felt’s sons still come by in the morning). Felt burst into tears.
"I felt so grateful that they would do this for me,” she said. “It was like I was given a team of angels. But I never dreamed that 10 years later, they would still be coming over to lift me. I've never seen such compassion.”
It was 1978 when Felt was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis after experiencing feelings of numbness, dizziness and imbalance for several months. She had suspected that the disease was the culprit, because her mother also had it.
Married at the time, she went with her husband to hear the diagnosis from a neurologist. “I honestly wasn’t surprised,” she said, “In fact, I was pretty calm about it. When the doctor told me that the odds were 1 in a million of a next-generation family member having MS, I turned to my husband and said, ‘See? It’s now documented proof that I’m 1 in a million.’ ”
Everyone laughed, but the good vibes didn’t continue. Felt’s husband left her 12 years later.
“Out of the blue, while he was watching TV one afternoon, he said he didn’t love me anymore,” she recalled. “I was stunned.”
Felt raised their sons, who were 12 and 15, on her own. She took them camping and hiking while she was still able. And when she started using a cane, her boys and their friends lovingly nicknamed her “Flash.”
After her sons got ready in the morning for high school, they often helped her put steam rollers in her hair.
“It’s been a beautiful life — I’m so moved that my boys have always been there, and now, my neighbors too,” Felt said.
She often wonders whether she deserves it.
Pugmire is ready with an answer.
“We’re inspired by Kathy. She meets her challenges head-on and has always done her best to live a ‘normal’ life,” he said. “She shows us all how to plow ahead through hard times and keep going. We admire that.”
As Felt's neighbor for 35 years, Pugmire had always enjoyed chatting with her and sharing stories about their families, vacations and gardening. Now, he said, he also has the bonus of knowing several dozen men he wouldn't otherwise spend much time with.
"It’s been a good brotherhood thing,” he said. “And every one of us leaves Kathy’s house with a positive outlook on life.”
Over the years, Pugmire has had as many as 60 men sign up for regular “lift shifts,” but as some of the men have aged and families have moved out of the neighborhood, that number has gone down to 25 or 30. Every man who signs up is shown how to put their arms under Kathy’s legs and back and lift her out of her chair into bed. The men then slide her up to the headboard, pull off her slippers, prop up her pillows and make sure her medication and cellphone are within reach.
“Once they have me situated, I’ll say, ‘Okay, covers up,’ ” Felt said.
Sometimes, they’ll sit on the edge of the bed and talk about children and work, or what’s going on in the neighborhood. The men often bring their kids with them to meet Felt and give her drawings that her sons then help her frame and hang on the wall. One volunteer has an extra-special reason to chip in: When Travis Smart was an infant, Felt was his first babysitter. As members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, they both attended the same neighborhood Mormon chapel for years.
“She watched me grow up, and to me, she’s family,” said Smart, 37, an original member of the “lift” crew. “If you have a bad day, you just go visit Kathy. She always greets you with a smile on her face and reminds you of what’s important in life.”
He and Felt laughed when one night, he and his lift partner pulled her up in bed too quickly, sending her straight through the middle book cubby in the headboard. “She told us we didn’t know our own strength,” said Smart, “and I told the guy who was helping, ‘It’s like buckin’ hay.' We all had a good laugh over that.”
Once the men leave, Felt usually watches a movie or reads until falling asleep. The next morning, after one of her sons helps her get dressed and get into her wheelchair, she’ll make breakfast. Several days a week, a home aide helps her bathe, while friends, relatives and neighbors do her grocery shopping.
Without the help from the “lifters,” Felt knows she would have moved into a care center years ago. Pugmire said he and the others aren’t going anywhere.
“As long as she’s in her home, I’m happy to lift,” he said.