12/09/07 — Attached at the heart -- the story of James & Tim

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Attached at the heart -- the story of James & Tim

By Phyllis Moore
Published in News on December 9, 2007 2:01 AM

Tim wasn't going to give up. Not yet.

Diagnosed with terminal renal failure, the 48-year-old was in his last hours.

But letting go would mean not seeing his best friend.

He wouldn't be able to say much to James Atkinson -- the man who had been by his side for more than 10 years. He wouldn't need to.

Old friends -- they just understand.


It began as an unlikely alliance -- the burley former Army drill sergeant and the frail but defiant man who had been living at O'Berry Neuro-Medical Treatment Center since he was 6 years old.

For the past decade, the two had been almost inseparable, forging a friendship based on hearts, not words. But getting there had not been easy.

Tim had historically been difficult to work with since he had very limited verbal skills. He presented many challenges for the staff, including being self-injurious.

In 1997, a supervisor asked James Atkinson, a health care technician who joined the staff the year before, to work exclusively with Tim. From the outset, it was admittedly hard, James said.

"He just wore you out and he did that because it was something he wanted to do or didn't want to do, and it was a way of communicating. I just watched him, studied his movements and his attitude and figured out he was trying to tell us something."

Many a time James would complete his shift, tired but unwilling to give up.

"Each night I'd go home and kind of self-evaluate myself and think about what I could have done better. If Tim got hurt on a given day, that was a very bad day for me, and I would try to figure out what to do differently tomorrow," he said.

They started to bond when James took Tim on rides in a golf cart around campus.

It was there that they started their "conversations." Not like most people with give and take, but with one silent and the other listening.

It did not matter that he could not talk back. James said Tim did not need words to let him know he cared -- or that he was listening.

"He really knows me because I tell him everything about me and that makes me feel better," James said. "If Tim could talk, he could tell you everything about me."

And that was when Tim started to change.

"It took me, I would say, about three years for me to see a change in him toward me," James said. "Some of the staff saw it before I did. He would gravitate toward me instead of them."

It was trust -- and knowing he had met someone he could count on, James said.

"I think the thing that really happened was that he learned that I was there for him, and he learned to trust in me. ... I told him day one, 'I ain't gonna give up on you.' That's the drill sergeant in me -- don't give up, keep on going."

Some of that determination also can be credited to his mother and his wife.

"(My mother) never gave up on me, and I don't give up on my kids," he said.

Both are patient, caring and strong women, he says, and each has also worked at O'Berry. His mother, Helen Bailey, is now retired, and wife Rovina is still there. The Atkinsons also have two children, son James Jr., 16, and daughter Aisha, 19.

All of them understand that this was not an ordinary friendship.

"My wife and family know how close (Tim and I) are," James said. "Tim's like my other son."

When Tim showed marked improvement last year, James decided it was time to move on and to help another person. He was transferred to a different group home, but kept in touch with Tim.

A short while later, though, James was diagnosed with leukemia and while on extended leave, learned that Tim had been hospitalized and diagnosed with terminal renal failure. Doctors gave him six months to live.

That was all James needed to hear. His needs became secondary. His friend needed him.

So, against his own medical advice, James returned to work and negotiated a transfer back to Tim's group home to spend their remaining time together. That was in June.

"The first morning I got back there I went to Tim, I woke him up and I said, 'Tim, I'm back and I am not going anywhere again,'" he said. "Tim gave me a big smile. He doesn't do that often.

"Later that day we were riding on the golf cart and he grabbed my hand and held it the whole time. He hasn't done that before. I will never forget that day."

Atkinson prayed often for his friend, encouraging him to fight.

"I told him, 'If you can't walk ever again, I will get you around just as long as you're still here.'"

James continued his fight against leukemia, making progress and staying strong -- not just for his family, but for Tim, too.

He sees his physician once a month and has been told his immune system is low but overall, getting better.

Tim's prognosis was not so bright.

On that Friday, Nov. 30, the staff was alerted that Tim was "going down fast."

O'Berry Director Dr. Frank Farrell said James was called at about 4:45 p.m.


As soon as he heard James was coming, Tim's vitals improved.

He could hang on a little longer.

Ten minutes after James arrived, at 5:30 p.m., Tim was gone.

He had waited to say good-bye.


That wasn't an easy day for James.

"It's kinda hard," he said. "I believe he was fighting until I got there."

The Monday after the loss of his friend, he could speak about what Tim meant to him and how his life will never be the same after having met him.

He has learned that you don't need words to be friends -- just two hearts.

"We were real close, more than best friends. I will cherish the time I spent with him," he said.

James will go on now to another patient -- another challenge.

He has found his calling.

"It's easy to work with clients out here. It's easy to care for them."

He will remember Tim every time he looks at the award he received from the state for his efforts. He was one of 14 recipients of the 2007 State Employees' Awards for Excellence statewide.

Atkinson has not been entirely comfortable with such attention.

He was just doing his job.

"I'm kind of laid back," he said. "But for me to help somebody else, with these kind of clients, it felt good."

He has learned something, too, that a job done well that touches lives, is worth more than any amount of fame or money.

It is a lesson, he said, he will share with his children.

"If I can do something to make my kids proud of me, I'm teaching them something," he said. "They were proud of their dad. I always tell them that I'm proud of them. This time it was reversed. They were proud of me."

That was the gift Tim left with his best friend.