My Brother's Keeper

Trying to rescue David from the system.

By Jacob Lambert
Add Comment Add Comment | Comments: 16 | Posted Jan. 28, 2009

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After five hours, they called me into a tiny scuff-marked conference room. The scowling judge sat behind an ancient computer at the head of the table. I sat across from my brother, who squirmed in arm constraints. Next to me: a lawyer responsible for having David hospitalized. Next to David: a lawyer responsible for his release.

His sour-faced attorney opened with a series of openly incredulous questions: Was my brother dangerous? Did he attack me? Why would I feel unsafe around him? I tried to point to David's 17-year history of institutionalization, but only events in the previous 30 days could be entered as evidence. All I could tell them was what I'd seen on the 12th, from his noontime phone call to our midnight van ride. I walked out, troubled, hoping it was enough.

After a brief, queasy wait, it was ruled that David was indeed "a danger to himself or others"--despite not having done anything to merit a Daily News cover. Now he'd be taken to the Belmont psychiatric hospital off of City Line Avenue, and my family would have three solid weeks to facilitate his transfer. His fumbling New Jersey keepers were freely admitting their mistake, and were still liable for his actions. To return him to New Jersey would be in the best interests of everyone involved.

Despite the antipsychotic administered at Belmont, his delusions persisted. He called two, three times a day, saying that he was a record producer and an Obama confidant; once out, he'd sell his paintings on South Street for $10,000 apiece, easy. His stay was soon extended to the 90-day maximum, as medication, therapy and regular sleep had little effect.

Meanwhile, my mother and I worked the phones, between us making dozens of calls to Essex County doctors, New Jersey lawyers and Belmont administrators. But we were repeatedly told that Pennsylvania's mental healthcare laws are independent from New Jersey's--and with no overarching federal law providing for "the interstate transfer of an uncooperative patient," we had hit an impassable wall. Legally, there was no way to move him. A transfer could only occur if my brother approved it.

Under Pennsylvania law, "patients' rights" empower psychiatric patients to make key decisions in their care. Due to this well-meaning concept, David now held the authority to determine what was best.

And he was more than willing to share what, exactly, "best" would be: He'd remain in Philadelphia, happily homeless, and pursue abstract painting, Democratic politics and European espionage. Constrained by his rights, we could do nothing but let the 90 days expire--then wait for him to resurface and do it all over again.

The cycle of 911 calls, 302 filings and commitment hearings could carry on indefinitely. My family and I were pinned at the juncture of legal omission and bureaucratic indifference.

Compounding the problem, his out-of-state Medicare was worthless here, and Belmont, forced to foot the bill, wanted him out as soon as possible. To lessen our apprehension, his psychiatrist implied that all David needed was the correct medication cocktail. Then my brother would leave the hospital a new man--no Jimmy Stewart, perhaps, but regular enough.

Beneath this assurance, though, lay a sinister truth: Once the heavy, dulling drugs knocked David down to an acceptable "baseline," he'd be off their books and free to roam. During one meeting, I told the doctor, "He's had these drugs before. All you're doing is creating a homeless person."

His response was unconvincing. "No, no," he said. "Once he's properly medicated, you'll see some real improvement. I'm sure of it."


In early November, the hospital called to say that David would be released, weeks before the 90 days were to expire. They planned to give my brother two parting gifts: a SEPTA token and directions to a homeless shelter. It seemed impossible for this to be the official procedure of a state-sanctioned institution. All his caseworkers could say, like that deskbound South Street cop, was that their hands were tied.

My family and I rushed to devise a plan that would prevent David's homelessness. Upon his release, I'd pick him up and drive us to our parents' house in New Jersey, where we'd all have a chance to "talk things over."

David was immediately suspicious: "You're not going to call the police right when we get there, are you?" he asked when I broached the idea. "Because I really can't go back to Essex County. Things are happening for me here." Needing his cooperation, I told him what he wanted to hear--and after a few moments of consideration, he agreed to come along.

On the afternoon of Nov. 11, I picked David up from the hospital. He wore a second-hand ball cap, a Goodwill shirt and a goofy, embarrassed smile. He hadn't been medicated, yet his speech was less rapid, his gestures less pronounced.

Over the next two hours, as I drove out of Pennsylvania and into New Jersey, he still spoke of spies and conspiracy--but was calm enough now to also discuss music, books and our parents. In those ordinary moments, he became the David I adored as a child: sharp, opinionated and eager to impress his little brother. His mind had inexplicably managed to regain order.

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Comments 1 - 16 of 16
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1. Michelle Kelleher said... on Jan 28, 2009 at 06:15AM

“Very good story. Having a nephew who is bi-polar, I understand some of this disorder. And I also see a holistic doctor who has helped me understand in my healthy world how many other things effect our well being, like food allergies as you mentioned and lack of certain vitamins and minerals that are crucial to a healthy life. Nice read!”

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2. LKS said... on Jan 28, 2009 at 09:02AM

“Very well- written story about the complexity of this issue. I truly hope your brother continues to do well. Good luck to you and your family.”

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3. Kathleen Turner said... on Jan 28, 2009 at 03:25PM

“An inspiration. I love it and I think I love you.”

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4. ccaruso said... on Jan 28, 2009 at 06:30PM

“Jacob Lambert articulates the frustration that so many families experience in trying to get help for their loved done wirh mental ilness. The national website( ) can direct people to their local affiliates. Although there is no cure yet for mental illness, there is help for those affected by it.”

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5. David Lambert said... on Jan 29, 2009 at 06:58AM

“Boy, now I know what it feels like to be front page news in Philadelphia! Actually, I've never considered myself to be this strange, and I'm not sure I said or did exactly what my brother says I said or did. Oh well, I guess this is what happens when you're the nutty brother of a working writeer. Dave Lambert”

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6. Timothy K. Peterson said... on Jan 29, 2009 at 07:25PM

“Thank you for sharing your story. I was diagnosed with bipolar disorder when I was sixteen. Thankfully my delusions of the radio talking directly talking to me and snipers pointing their arms at me lasted shortly. It is still a persistent possibility that like the Hulk I will "Hulk out" at any given stress or lack of sufficient sleep. My medications have been very effective and it has been helpful for me to read Kay Redfield Jamison's literature on her own bipolar disorder while being a leading psychiatrist. Though I risk sounding patronizing I'll share this anyhow. There are strengths within bipolar disorder for productivity and creativity. Supposedly some of history's great minds were touched by this creative fire. A short list includes Dickens, Newton, Van Gogh, Beethoven, Churchill, Teddy Roosevelt, Goethe, and Mark Twain (Redfield's, Touched with Fire AND I applaud you and your family for taking care of your brother with this difficult illness. However, as you already evidenced he can be productive and if given the opportunity his creativity can be unleashed toward that end as well. May God bless you and your family as you all work to restore your brother into who you remember him to be. ”

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7. Gwen Ceccardi said... on Jan 30, 2009 at 08:51AM

“These young men are both my nephews, and I have seen their parents' feel both heartache and pride in their sons (emotions ALL parents feel at one time or another in raising their children). Jay, this was an excellent article and very informative to the general public who knows nothing about mental illness. Dave, I remember you as a child interacting with my daughters at Grandmother Lambert's house in Alva. You seemed to adore my girls at the time. I pray for your whole family, since I love you all. Aunt Gwen”

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8. Robin Angel said... on Jan 30, 2009 at 02:59PM

“So well written. Thanks for sharing your story with all of us. It will be helpful for others going through mental illness with a family member. We love you. R & R”

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9. Sarah said... on Feb 1, 2009 at 04:26AM

“That you so much for sharing what must be a very personal story. Good luck for the future.”

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10. Arlean Lambert said... on Feb 1, 2009 at 08:31AM

“Even though David says he has never repaired a clock and that wasn't him who left the empty yogurt cup on the stoop, you wrote a fabulous, loving, and accurate account of our seventeen year journey. Thank you, Jacob, for bringing balance into our lives with laughter sometimes when we were at our lowest point. I love both you and David with all my heart. Mom ”

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11. PMD said... on Feb 2, 2009 at 06:37PM

“This article should be required reading for every elected and appointed office holder. Lambert has perfectly illustrated the entirely mundane intersecting and parallell processes which daily trip and trap our most vulnerable and marginalized. The overarching heartache, the capacity, after decades of numbing experience, to come to the sputtering re-realization that THIS CAN'T POSSIBLY BE HOW IT IS is accurate and pervasive in this country. The shame is ours; other countries do better, we can too. Thank you, Mr. Lambert, you have powerfully conveyed what urgently needs to be told and retold until hands are not just untied, but extended.”

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12. Cody Watts said... on Sep 15, 2009 at 08:42PM

That was impressive, and insightful. Fantastic piece.”

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13. Nicole Martelli said... on Mar 6, 2010 at 09:04AM


What a beautiful piece. It's amazing how little we really know about the people we grow up with. It sounds like you had to grow up a little earlier than a lot of your peers. Life's lessons don't care how old we are, just that we learn them. Keep writing...I look forward to reading.”

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14. diane said... on Jun 18, 2010 at 12:32PM

“please forward to Jacob Lambert
Hi Little "J": Remember me? Number 11 Crowell. . .one of my very favorite little boys. . .remember playing catch? going to your baseball games and loving every minute of the time I spent with you.

A wonderful article. I, too, remember David very well. I especially remember a little guy sitting with two elderly neighbors who enjoyed and loved him to bits! I also remember my bell ringing on each and every Christmas morning with hot cross buns in hand and wishes for a very merry Christmas.

Crowell Place, what wonderful memories.

How r u Little J? Enjoying a good life? Sure hope. Think of you and your family very often.

Be fun to hear from you. . .


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15. SS said... on Jul 23, 2010 at 09:03AM

“Jacob Lambert, This is a great piece you have written. I know your brother, and speak with him almost weekly. He actually calls into my job and try’s having conversations about IT and his new ideas to make money by selling an application he designed or what ever comes to his mind that day. Before reading this story I would listen along to his stories and wonder where they where coming from. I empathize with your family and wish you all the best. I hope this receives you well.

P.S. I spoke with him less then an hour ago

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16. Brian lindstrom said... on Jan 27, 2011 at 11:26PM

“Thanks for writing this, Jacob. Very powerful. You have helped the general public understand just what it means to have a loved one coping with severe and persistent mental illness.
The parallels between Sandy Morgan and James Chasse, a Portland man with schizophrenia who died in police custody on Sept. 17, 2006 are a frightening reminder of what a truly national--even international--problem this is.

Glad to hear that David is currently doing well.



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