Institutionalized From Birth, Man Reunites With Family
PHILADELPHIA — One night, when she was a teenager, Sharon Gaiptman’s grandmother divulged to her a family secret that changed the simple math she’d grown up with — namely, that Gaiptman was the firstborn of three children, followed by a brother and sister.
But that night, her grandmother told her that there had once been another sibling, born before her, a brother. Shortly after that revelation, Gaiptman asked her parents over dinner if it were true.
“My mother ran from the table, crying,” said Gaiptman, now 71, “and my father told me I was never allowed to bring it up again.”
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But Gaiptman, who grew up in North Philly, could not forget what her grandmother told her and how her mother had reacted. She spent years prodding other relatives for information, until she got some answers.
His name was Lenny, they told her. He was born in 1946.
“The family lore was that a nurse had dropped him on his head and he died. So that pretty much checked out with everyone,” Gaiptman said.
Gaiptman let it rest until she was in her early 40s, when she was pregnant and concerned about the health of her unborn child. She asked her father, had Lenny’s death truly been accidental? If not, had it been caused by something congenital? He said that her mother had been exposed to German measles — rubella — while pregnant with Lenny. As a result, a nurse told them, Lenny had been born a “monster and was going to die within two days.”
Her parents left Lenny at the hospital, heartbroken, believing their firstborn would soon succumb. Gaiptman doesn’t know if they even got to see him when he was born. She likes to believe they didn’t.
Her mother died in 1987, her father in 2014 — and that’s when Gaiptman, who’d since moved to Juneau, Alaska, doubled her efforts to learn more about Lenny.
Hours of Googling revealed evidence of Lenny’s birth, but not his death; a burial fund, but no burial.
Then she found his name — Leonard Gaiptman, of Spring City, Pa., — mentioned in a small newspaper blurb from 1976 that listed who had been admitted to Phoenixville Hospital and who had been discharged.
“That was 30 years after he was supposed to have died,” she said.
She Googled some more, until she found an address on the 3900 block of Richmond Street in North Philly. In April of 2018, when she and her husband were back in the area to visit, they drove to the home, but no one was there.
Gaiptman had a hunch that Lenny, if he were alive, might have disabilities. After more web searching, she found COMHAR, a nonprofit that serves 11,000 people with mental illness, intellectual disability or substance addictions in Philadelphia and lower Montgomery County.
Gaiptman called COMHAR, where her unusual quest stirred much interest. Over the next few months, she sent the agency family pictures, answered all their questions, and waited.
Finally, in the fall of 2018, came the phone call that has changed her life: “Sharon, we have your brother.”
“I was so happy,” she said. “You have no idea.”
Lenny, she learned, was not the monster of family lore. In fact, when Gaiptman first met him — just after Christmas in 2018, in Philly — she recognized him at first sight, she said.
“His smile lights up a room. He’s like my dad,” she said. “He’s just very smiley.”
Sharon said her brother had lived at the former Pennhurst State School and Hospital — an institution for residents with mental and physical disabilities, which closed for good in 1987 during the nationwide movement to transition residents into community living arrangements. She doesn’t know if he lived there in his childhood, but he has been under COMHAR’s supervision since 1984.
Lenny is verbal, has both intellectual and physical disabilities, and gets around with the help of a wheelchair, said Sharon. He lives in a group home in Port Richmond with two male housemates; the men spend weekdays at COMHAR’S Vanderwoude Center, partaking in social, physical and recreational activities in the community.
Woody Rosenbach, COMHAR’s CEO, said Lenny Gaiptman’s care is funded by the city and the state, via Medicaid.
“This feels really good,” said Rosenbach about Lenny’s restored connection to family. “Lenny’s an individual who’s had a great life. It’s been a joyous reunion.”
Lenny, his little sister learned, is a big Philadelphia Phillies fan, traveling to Clearwater every year to see the team during spring training with the help of a nonprofit that arranges the getaways. He even likes to sleep on a Phillies pillow.
Last month, Sharon Gaiptman traveled to Philadelphia for another visit with the brother she never knew she had and who has brought wonder into her life.
“You’re the best,” she said, hugging him.
She believes COMHAR and its employees have taken good care of her brother all these years, becoming his family. Now, that family has more members.
“It was very emotional. I can’t believe the state, the commonwealth, kept this man alive for 72 years,” she said. “Whatever family he didn’t come by naturally, everybody here is just so giving and so caring. Everybody is a professional.”
Since connecting with Lenny, Gaiptman said, she’s thought a lot about her parents. She’s convinced that they believed he was dead. Perhaps it was better that way.
“My parents never could have taken care of Lenny. They lived in a flat in North Philly and didn’t have a cent. They were just getting by. There was no home health aides back then. We live in a different world,” she said. “I have compassion for them.”
© 2020 The Philadelphia Inquirer
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