P.E.I. woman 'free like a bird' after living in hospital for almost 2 years

A P.E.I. woman with an intellectual disability is living in the community after advocates worked to get her out of hospital when officials wanted to place her in a nursing home.

'Now since she got out, she's a different person altogether'

Debbie Lefurgey now rents a room in a private home. (Laura Meader/CBC)

A P.E.I. woman with an intellectual disability is living in the community after advocates worked to get her out of hospital when officials wanted to place her in a nursing home.

Debbie Lefurgey spent almost two years at the Queen Elizabeth Hospital. She was admitted in May 2014 with high blood pressure — her legs were extremely swollen and she wasn't taking her medications.

Authorities with the province felt she should be placed in a nursing home after being discharged from the hospital.

But the 58-year-old had other ideas. 

Adults with intellectual disabilities have a right to have input and choice on where they live.— Rosalind Waters, PEI Citizen Advocacy

"No thank you, I don't like a nursing home," she told CBC News.

Court documents containing doctors' assessments said Lefurgey, who has a speech impediment as well an intellectual disability, was unable to make reliable decisions and was incapable of managing her personal affairs.

But friends and advocates wanted her to have a more independent life where she could participate in community programs and have regular visits with her husband, Lloyd Lefurgey.

"She's a beautiful person," he said.

The couple lived together for a time with some home care assistance but Lloyd, who has some mental health issues and also requires help, now lives in community care.

'No voice'

Debbie Lefurgey with supporters Marie McKenna, left, and Rosalind Waters. (Laura Meader/CBC)

"My heart went out to her when she was in hospital, she was there for so long," said longtime friend Leo Garland.

Rosalind Waters is a friend who works for PEI Citizen Advocacy, a non-profit organization that matches volunteer advocates with community members who have an intellectual disability.

"They wanted to discharge Debbie into a nursing home but they also wanted to apply to the public guardian and have the public guardian take control of her affairs and make decisions for her," she said.

"She felt that she had no voice."

Advocates present plan

Lefurgey's supporters came up with a plan that would support her living outside an institution — she had lived in the community, with some help, for 30 years before being hospitalized, Waters said.

I'm free like a bird. I feel happy and good.- Debbie Lefurgey

They presented their plan in court in January, when the public guardian acting on behalf of the Minister of Health and Wellness applied for guardianship under the Mental Health Act.

A spokesperson with the Department of Justice and Public Safety who oversees guardianship cases said the department cannot comment on specific cases but explained the purpose of public guardianship is to keep people safe, adding that hospitals can't discharge patients until they have a safe place to go.

In January, Lefurgey was discharged to a private home where she rents a room. The homeowner helps with day-to-day tasks and supplies transportation to regular activities. She's been going to a gym, learning how to cook and has lost 50 pounds. 

'Stand up for your rights'

Lloyd and Debbie Lefurgey are happy they're now able to see each other regularly. (Laura Meader/CBC)

"I'm free like a bird. I feel happy and good," she said.

Her message to others? "Stand up for your rights. Don't back off." 

Lloyd Lefurgey said it's been a huge relief.

"We got our freedom back. It's a lot better."

A supported decision-making agreement has been set up to help Lefurgey consult friends whenever big decisions need to be made.

"There was a lot of opposition and we had to work really hard to put it in place," said Marie McKenna, one of her supported decision-makers.

"It took a lot of work."

'A very strong sense of herself'

Debbie Lefurgey says she's 'free like a bird.'

Lefurgey's advocates say she's blossoming.

"Debbie has a speech impediment so people can't understand what she is saying, but she does have a very strong sense of herself as a person who has a right to live in the community," said Waters.

"Adults with intellectual disabilities have a right to have input and choice on where they live."

The Department of Justice officially withdrew its application for guardianship on April 20. 

Health Department officials said they are unable to comment for privacy reasons.