FULTON — A former elementary school teacher in Fulton who later earned recognition as a leader of nursing home residents is now in need of help.
Roxanne Alnutt Stuart, a Fulton native now residing at Seneca Hill Manor because she has multiple sclerosis (MS), needs a new custom-made electric wheelchair with some special features so she can regain more independence and get back to doing all the things she is accustomed to doing.
Her previous wheelchair that had some of those features and allowed her to get around independently broke. Since the chair was old and obsolete, it was impossible to get parts to fix it, and Medicaid and Medicare won’t pay for a new one because she is a nursing home resident.
Stuart’s friend Beth Knight and classmate Carolyn Holland, with whom she graduated from G. Ray Bodley High School in 1967, are spreading the word on social media and leading the effort to purchase a new specialized electric wheelchair for Stuart.
“Roxanne is a very special person that needs help from our local community. She is an anomaly, 70 years old and confined to a nursing home for the last 28 years due to MS,” Knight said.
According to the National Multiple Sclerosis Society, MS is an unpredictable disease of the central nervous system that disrupts the flow of information within the brain, and between the brain and body.Knight said Stuart is in immediate need of a specialized electric wheelchair, and neither Medicaid nor Medicare can help as she is a full-time resident of Seneca Hill Manor, and is disqualified from any assistance. They said that according to Medicaid and Medicare, it’s a non-essential piece of equipment since at the nursing home there are staff to assist her with getting around.
“So we are starting a fundraising campaign to raise the $25,000 to purchase this most critical piece of equipment for her,” Knight said.
After graduating from G. Ray Bodley, Stuart, whose father Thomas Alnutt was a former Fulton police chief, began the pursuit of her dream to become an elementary school teacher.
She graduated in 1971 from Lycoming College, where she double-majored in sociology and elementary education. Later, she earned her master’s degree from SUNY Oswego.
She was a senior at Lycoming College when she was diagnosed with MS.
“I got into a boyfriend’s car. We started going down the street. I looked out the window and I had double vision. It just came on,” Stuart said.
She went to see an eye doctor and he said he believed that she had MS. A doctor from Upstate University Hospital confirmed the diagnosis.
Symptoms were mild enough to allow her to begin her teaching career. She started teaching in 1971 at Phillips Street Elementary School in Fulton and was there for five years. Then she taught at Oak Street School in Fulton for the next eight years. At both schools, she primarily taught fourth grade.
After being diagnosed with MS in 1971, Stuart said there were no major changes until about nine years after that.
“My foot started feeling numb,” she said, a sign that her MS was beginning to progress. “I still taught, but as the years went by it felt like it was crawling up my leg. More and more my leg would get numb.”
She retired from teaching in 1984. Shortly after that, her MS got worse.
“When I was home, my other leg started (to get numb) too,” she said. “I ended up walking with a walker, and all of a sudden I found myself in a wheelchair.”
For a while, Stuart lived at home with her teenage daughter. Stuart’s husband was no longer in the picture.
Then one day in 1993, Stuart was not feeling well.
“I thought I was having problems with my heart. I went to the emergency room in Fulton,” she said.
Doctors told her she was OK, and that it was a gas problem, and made her stay overnight.
There was concern that if she went back home, she would need someone to stay with her overnight that was capable of taking care of her. Stuart said her daughter wasn’t capable of doing all the things that needed to be done, and she didn’t have anybody else who could stay with her. Her parents had both passed away.
So, she went straight from the hospital to Michaud Nursing Home.
“I was only 42,” she said. “It was a shocker.”
While at Michaud, Stuart had several different chairs according to the progression of her disability. “My last electric wheelchair was able to give me the movement I needed to be an independent person. I was able to get to church and take part in their activities. I was able to go out to lunch with friends, shop, go to parties, and even attend the circus,” she said.
At Michaud, she stepped up to advocate for the residents, arguing for the right for visitors to stay overnight if conditions necessitated that, she said.
Stuart helped the residents raise money through bake sales, raffles, and other events. “We had quite a sizable treasury so that at Christmas time we could take like $500 and buy presents for a (needy) family,” Stuart said.
They also raised money for charitable organizations and causes such as The Salvation Army and the American Cancer Society, Stuart said.
Her efforts in the community and with Michaud caught the attention of State Senator Patty Ritchie, who presented her with a Woman of Distinction Award.
Stuart is also noteworthy for developing a school curriculum on Fulton history that was used by the district. This was while she was home just after retiring. “I knew a lot of the history because I am a Fulton native, but I dug into it more,” she said.
New York State was mandating that school districts teach local history in grade four. Stuart expanded on a local history pamphlet by Grace Lynch, read newspaper reports, and did extensive other research to come up with the curriculum.
“I made it so that a fourth-grader could read it,” she said. “I put activities and questions with it.”
Stuart resided at Michaud Nursing Home for more than 24 years until it closed in 2017. “I had a chair that reclined for me, which I need for hairdresser, doctor, and dentist appointments,” she said. “They would recline me and they could work on me.”
After Michaud closed, Stuart was transferred to Seneca Hill Manor. About a year after that, the wheelchair she was using broke. “Just all of a sudden the control panel burnt out,” she said, noting the chair was obsolete. “We couldn’t get parts to fix it. They put me in a regular chair.”
It would not recline, and she could not propel it herself.
About a year ago, Stuart’s church, State Street United Methodist Church in Fulton, provided her with an electric wheelchair. While she is grateful for their assistance and the chair gets her around, it doesn’t recline or have the special fit and features she needs.
Stuart said a new specialized electric wheelchair built for her would accommodate her disabilities now and in the future.
“My new chair would be equipped with recline and a tilt-in-space feature so that I could control it myself. These features would allow me to change the pressure on certain parts of my body to prevent pressure sores. They would also allow me to be comfortable while at appointments to the dentist and neurologist. Stuart said. “There are also other safety features to be put on the new chair that would allow for any progression of my disease and keep me independent.”
Knight said the new electric wheelchair they are seeking to help Stuart get is a customized Quickie-manufactured model with tilt, a swivel joystick arm for her to operate it, and a “suck and blow” feature built in so that Stuart will still be able to operate it should her MS progress further.
Medicare and Medicaid won’t pay for it.
“Unfortunately, neither one of them will help me purchase a new chair because I am in a nursing home,” Stuart said. “The reason stated by Medicare is it is not a necessary piece of equipment because I am in a nursing home and there are employees that can push me around. If you have ever worked in the nursing field, you would know how hard everybody works and they don’t have time to push me around.”
Knight and Holland are leading the effort to raise money for Stuart’s wheelchair fund. They are calling on Stuart’s classmates, former students, or friends in the community to make donations.
An account has been set up at Fulton Savings Bank. It is called: Electric Wheelchair Fund for Roxanne M. Stuart. Those interested in making a donation may stop by any Fulton Savings Bank branch to donate in person. Checks are to be made payable to Roxanne M. Stuart and must have in the memo “Electric Wheelchair Fund.”
Donations may also be mailed to Fulton Savings Bank, 75 S. First St., Fulton, NY 13069. Those needing additional details or information may call the bank at 315-592-4201.
Holland said she had been visiting Stuart at least once a week before the COVID-19 pandemic hit and visitation stopped. She has remained in contact with her and is rallying to her cause.
“She’s just a wonderful person,” said Holland, a Fulton resident. “She’s very caring and thoughtful of other people and their needs.”
“She has been dealt one of the meanest and most difficult life situations,” Knight said. “She’s not bitter. She just wants to keep doing what she can, but she needs this device.”
Holland said Stuart, who has gone to bat for so many in the community, now needs their help.
“Before the pandemic, we would talk and she would cry, because she felt defeated,” Holland said. “She can’t help herself. She needs someone to advocate for her.”