Assistance helps attorney live independently

Friday, February 3, 2012 | 6:00 a.m. CST; updated 11:59 a.m. CST, Friday, February 3, 2012

Editor's note: This is one of four stories on Boone County Family Resources. The other installments include a look at the agency's growth and need for expansion, the history of the agency and its work, and how the agency has helped Isaac Pasley.

COLUMBIA — Max Lewis is both a client and a member of the Boone County Family Resources Board of Directors. The 45-year-old lawyer survived a diving accident on June 12, 1986, but a spinal cord injury paralyzed him from the chest down.

For seven years, Lewis has maintained his family law practice. He provides his services pro bono because he must remain below 85 percent of the federal poverty level to keep his eligibility for Medicaid.

But Lewis is unable to get in or out of bed by himself. He can't dress himself. He can't go the bathroom without help. He can't eat on his own or pour a glass of water.

In 2011, Lewis broke his right arm and left shoulder, then developed a pressure sore from inactivity. In early December, his electric wheelchair broke.

"I couldn't do anything except wait for my attendants to come," he said.

Lewis lives at Paquin Tower, a 200-apartment downtown facility run by the Columbia Housing Authority. He gets six hours of attendant care per day through Services for Independent Living, a Columbia-based nonprofit organization that helps people with disabilities lead independent lives. Boone County Family Resources helps keep his extensive inventory of medical supplies stocked and channeled extra attendant care his way until his electric wheelchair was fixed.

His combined income from Social Security disability and supplemental benefits barely clears $750 per month. Lewis gets by on that and with the help of social service agencies, a caring community and advanced technologies.

In 2007, family, friends and community members raised money to help pay for a handicapped-accessible van for Lewis. He uses a mouth-activated "sip-and-puff" phone (and sometimes accidentally "breath-dials" friends while he sleeps).

"I'm able to live in an apartment and come and go as I please. I can get on the bus, go to the movies, go downtown, go to school, to work. ... I'd be in big trouble without their services," Lewis said. "I can't imagine."

But he can imagine. Lewis knows that without extensive community support, he would spend the rest of his life in a nursing home or a hospital.

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