August 12, 2011

State of Alabama
Press Release: Mental Health, Department of

Cordova Man’s Dream Trip of a Lifetime Becomes Reality

MONTGOMERY – For Cornelius McElrath, his April 2011 cruise was the trip of a lifetime. But for this Cordova resident to even be able to embark on his adventure, several steps had to be taken by McElrath and two of his close friends. Before he turned six-years-old, McElrath had cardiac arrest, followed by a stroke. These episodes resulted in intellectual and developmental disabilities, as well as renal failure and residual deficits in walking and movement.

Over the years McElrath has not let his intellectual or physical disabilities slow him down. He lives with his sister in his family home. He goes bowling twice weekly with friends, plays Dream Team baseball, shops and dines out frequently, attends two different churches and frequently visits a friend in a nursing home. McElrath is enamored with everything about law enforcement as has been designated a junior deputy with the Walker County Sheriff’s Department where he has many friends. He is very sociable and also has friends throughout Walker County.

In spite of having a very active life, McElrath had not attempted his dream of going on a cruise. When McElrath heard discussions among some of the employees at the TriCounty Agency for Intellectual Disabilities about cruises they had taken over the years he became even more interested in this new adventure. McElrath has been visiting TriCounty for the past 16 years. The Alabama Department of Mental Health contracts with TriCounty to provide services to people like McElrath who have intellectual disabilities. The staff at TriCounty monitor his services and treatments, assist him with making physician appointments, complete applications for activities such as Kidney Camp and Dream Team baseball, and talk with him weekly about his special diet, medication regiment and prudent money management. They also provide social support and monitor his home environment.

Over the years, McElrath had grown close to several TriCounty employees, especially Linda Bender, his case manager and Sonja Banks, a program coordinator. His team was in for a surprise when he announced at his most recent annual person-centered planning meeting that he wanted to go on a cruise – and he wanted Bender and Banks to join him. From that moment, McElrath, Bender and Banks set out on a course to make his dream come true. It took a while, about five years actually, but McElrath earned enough money to pay for his cruise. It was important to him that he earned the money himself so he stashed away birthday and Christmas money, saved his spending money and earned some more by
recycling aluminum cans.

McElrath’s trip of a lifetime finally became a reality on April 13, 2011, and lasted until April 19. The cruise itself was April 15-17. Why the extra days before and after the cruise? Because arrangements had to be made for McElrath to even travel, and that’s where Bender and Banks came in. Because of the endstage renal disease he has had since childhood, McElrath requires hemodialysis three times each week for three hours each treatment. As a child, he had three cadaver kidney transplants that were rejected by his body after a period of time. When his older brother reached the age of eighteen, he was allowed to make the decision to provide one of his kidneys for McElrath. This living-related donor kidney functioned for the next eighteen years. At that time, the kidney progressively decreased function and McElrath was required to return to hemodialysis again. He has been evaluated and is currently on the UAB-Renal Transplant waiting list.

In order for McElrath’s nephrologist to feel it was medically safe for him to go on the trip, some extraordinary measures were taken. Hemodialysis treatments were arranged at a dialysis center in Miami before and after the cruise. Medication had to be administered in order to keep McElrath’s potassium level in normal range, and diet and medications had to be monitored closely. Since both Bender and Banks are also registered nurses, they were able to take care of all of McElrath’s needs.

Once the trip began McElrath, at the age of 40, flew in a plane for the first time, and also got to have his picture made with the pilot and sit in the cockpit upon the pilot’s invitation. After reaching Miami and boarding the ship, McElrath was bound for Nassau, Bahamas were he spent a full day. The next day it was on to Great Stirrup Cay, a private island of the Norwegian Cruise Line, where he spent the day before heading back to Miami the next morning. In addition to his first plane ride, McElrath also experienced his first time on a ship, wading in the ocean, riding a tender from the ship to the island and getting in a hot tub. He was amazed at the vastness of the ocean, the abundance of foods to choose from and all the sights to see. For McElrath, the trip also marked his longest time ever away from home except for hospitalization.

The trip and the efforts to make it possible resulted in many special moments for McElrath, Banks and Bender. Bender said of the trip, “It is pretty amazing how much you can enjoy just by watching the enjoyment and wonder through another’s eyes.” As for McElrath, since he was asking Banks and Bender before even arriving back in Cordova, “Where do we want to go on the next cruise?” it’s pretty safe to say he enjoyed his adventure. ADMH’s mission to help people reach their full potential with an inclusive live in the community is exemplified in the self-determination of McElrath.

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