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Blind Bureaucracy Strikes Again

Corina Turcinovic spent 14 years in immigration limbo so she could care for her quadriplegic husband in Chicago. Now he's dead, and she's about to be deported.



For 14 years Corina Turcinovic rarely left her home in Beverly. She worried that her bedridden, quadriplegic husband, Maro, would need her, or that the nurses who helped care for him wouldn't show up. When she did venture out she was never gone for long, and she always thought about what she could bring back for him--a blues CD, some shower gel. "I was there like his shadow," she says.

One of the couple's favorite nurses, Winsome Thomas, says, "She lived for him. He lived for her."

On April 29 Maro died. A native of Croatia, he was in the process of becoming a U.S. citizen so that Corina's legal status would be less precarious--she was allowed to stay here only because she was taking care of him. Now she might be deported, even though she desperately wants to remain. "I made my life here," she says. "He is in that home still. In every corner he is there. I've lost him--and I don't want to lose all the memories."

She was born Corina de Chalup on April 8, 1964, in Perigueux, France. Her father was a college librarian, and her mother taught high school Spanish and college-level economics. They divorced when she was four, and the judge decided that Corina and her older sister would live with their father and paternal grandparents on a farm in the countryside, which is where she grew up.

Her husband, Marin Turcinovic, was born on January 13, 1962, in Dubrovnik, then in the Croatian republic within Yugoslavia. His father was a farmer, his mother a housewife. Called Maro by his friends and family, he was passionate about music, painting, and sculpture, though not academics, and after high school he enrolled in a two-year technical school to become a metalworker. He also played drums and started a band with some of his friends.

In 1987 the band played at a seaside hotel in Croatia, where Corina was working as a travel agent, welcoming tourists at the airport and organizing cabaret nights and elegant parties. "For a long time we were sort of spying on each other," she says, "trying to catch a glimpse of each other." They went on one date and became inseparable.

Corina describes Maro as a bon vivant who enjoyed "a good drink, a good meal, beautiful music. He knew all kinds of species of birds and herbs." They got engaged on New Year's Eve 1989, intending to marry the following fall, and talked of opening their own bakery near Dubrovnik.

Croatian singer Milo Hrnic noticed Maro and recruited him to play drums for her pop band, Libertas. Several months later the band came to the U.S. on tour. Two days after they arrived, on February 8, 1990, Maro was walking in a street in Fairview, New Jersey, when a car driven by a teenager hit him.

No one was sure exactly how it happened, but Corina, who was in Paris at the time, believes Maro was in the street because the sidewalk was too narrow for all five band members to walk side by side. "It was dark," she says. "The driver panicked. People say it looked like he accelerated instead of hitting the brakes. The impact was on both legs--they shattered. As he fell back down he hurt his neck. There was a nice lady--who I wish I could find one day--who put a blanket over him."

Corina was at work when her roommate came to tell her about the accident. "I felt like one of those cartoon characters running on top of the mountain who suddenly realized there was nothing underneath," she says. "Immediately I thought, 'I'm going to go there.'"

She grabbed her credit cards, withdrew her savings, called her mother to say good-bye, and flew to New York. After hours on a bus she arrived at Holy Name Hospital in Teaneck, New Jersey, and was allowed to see Maro. "He was sort of knocked out with medication," she says. "He was swollen. There were tubes everywhere. He didn't smell like himself."

Much later Maro told Corina that when he heard her voice he felt "very relieved, very happy," but at the time he couldn't say anything because he was almost completely paralyzed. The doctors told Corina they didn't know whether he'd survive for two hours or two weeks. At one point they asked if she wanted him removed from life support. "How can someone ask if you want to disconnect a respirator from a 28-year-old man who is fighting for his life?" she says. "I was horrified."

A doctor asked if the couple had a lawyer. They didn't, but Corina immediately hired one, Samuel Davis. She says that after Maro had been in the hospital for a few weeks, Davis got an anonymous call from a hospital employee who said hospital staff had "messed up" Maro when he was in the emergency room, misreading his X-rays and moving his head during the first few days after the accident. Davis filed a malpractice lawsuit, and one of the documents he filed states that Maro had come into the hospital able to move his arms and legs and that no one diagnosed a fractured vertebra until four days later.

Corina wanted to move Maro to the Rehabilitation Institute of Chicago, one of the top clinics in the country for spinal-cord injuries, but she was afraid the bills wouldn't be covered by insurance. Officials in Yugoslavia had told her its socialist health-care system wouldn't cover treatment abroad. So Davis threatened to sue the insurance company that had covered the teenage driver, and in March of that year it agreed to move Maro to Chicago and pay for his housing and most of his care. The malpractice lawsuit wouldn't be settled until 1998, and though Corina won't say how much Maro got, she says it was enough to pay the bills the insurance company didn't cover.

Unable to sit up, Maro was dependent on a respirator and had to be fed through a tube in his stomach. Corina learned how to feed him, how to suction his throat because he couldn't cough, change the tubes of his ventilator, and frequently reposition him to prevent bedsores. For months he communicated by blinking--one blink meant yes, two blinks no. Only after over a year of physical and speech therapy was he finally able to speak and swallow.

In November 1990 the two moved to their one-story home in Beverly, which Corina says was like a mini intensive care unit. She cared for Maro 24 hours a day--checking his equipment, moving his legs, arms, and neck every few hours, and feeding, bathing, and catheterizing him. Nurses were scheduled around the clock, but she says they often canceled their shifts or seemed so inexperienced she didn't trust them. She also served as his barber and secretary. "It was obvious he needed someone to assist him with everything, not just companionship and the psychological aspect," she says. "There was paperwork, responsibilities, and paying for things."

Maro was never moved from his bed except on rare occasions--even his doctor came to the house. He and Corina spent their time talking, reading, watching movies and the news, and cooking. "He was the chef," she says. "He would tell me which ingredients to use, how long to cook, how thin to cut the onions. He enjoyed eating very much."

He was in constant pain. He told Corina he had burning sensations and always felt like an elephant was sitting on top of him. Davis visited a couple times a year and in a 1997 document he filed asking that Maro be allowed to testify from his bed during the malpractice trial he wrote, "His ability to speak is limited to a few sentences at a time. He stops speaking when his body goes into spasms. The pain causes him to grimace. His torso twitches violently, and when the spasm ends, he appears weakened and requires some time to compose himself and regain his strength. This young man's life is dominated by his struggle to survive the savage spasms that rack his body daily."

Yet Corina says he rarely complained. "Even when everybody was depressed on a rainy day he would crack a joke," she says. One day she was upset that the nursing agency didn't have a nurse to send. "Maro said instead of calling their company Independence Plus they should have called it Independence Minus."

In February 1996 Corina and Maro were married in their home in front of three people--a judge, a lawyer, and a nurse. They hoped to return to Croatia one day and get married again in a church in front of all their friends and relatives. "We wanted to show everybody that I was serious about what I was doing," she says. "This was the man of my life."

But the long flight to Europe would have been far too dangerous for Maro. And Corina was afraid to leave him even to visit her family. "For all these years I had to choose between Maro and my family," she says. "I haven't seen any one of my relatives since 1990. My grandmother who raised me, who's 87, cries to me on the phone every time I talk to her, telling me she'd like to see me before she dies."

In September 1996 Congress passed a law barring immigrants who'd overstayed their visas for more than a year from reentering the country for ten years if they left. Now Corina couldn't visit her family even if she dared leave Maro. Because she'd been in such a hurry to get to New York, she'd entered the country under a visa-waiver program that allowed her to stay only 90 days. When she realized she had to be here longer she asked the immigration authorities for an exception, but they denied it. "That's when I stayed," she says. "Nobody, nowhere is going to shake my belief that what I did was right. If I had not stayed there would have been no way this man could have survived any more than two months."

After the couple moved to Chicago, Corina contacted Travelers & Immigrants Aid, and the agency helped her get a stay of deportation that allowed her to remain so long as she was caring for Maro. The stay has been extended every year since, but they both knew that immigration officials could refuse to extend it or the law could change.

The only way Corina's status could be secure was if she were married to an American citizen. In 1998 Maro was granted legal residency under a "suspension of deportation" provision because he would have suffered "extreme hardship" if he left the U.S., and in September 2003 he was finally allowed to apply to become a naturalized citizen.

The couple hired Marta Delgado, an attorney who specialized in immigration issues, and she filed the appropriate papers. One of the requirements was that Maro be fingerprinted. Maro's doctor said that couldn't be done because he had no flexibility in his joints, his muscles had atrophied, and his circulation was poor, which would have made readable fingerprints impossible. Delgado asked for a waiver. In December the couple received a notice that he still had to be fingerprinted. Delgado, who points out that the fingerprinting is done so that officials can check to see if the person has committed a crime since arriving in the U.S., called the Chicago immigration office and sent a letter, and officials said they would see that the processing office understood that he couldn't be fingerprinted. But in March 2004 his naturalization application was denied because he hadn't been fingerprinted.

Delgado again called immigration officials, who said they would reopen the case. Another notice that he had to be fingerprinted soon arrived, and she made repeated calls, to no avail. "It's frustrating because you're dealing with one entity with a lot of different suboffices, none of whom seem to be communicating very well with one another," she says. "That leaves us in a very difficult position--because we don't know who to turn to."

On April 27, 2004, Corina says, Maro ate lunch, but by the afternoon "his belly was swollen, and his feet were cold." She didn't think he was seriously ill, because his breathing and blood pressure were normal. But at around 1 AM she took him to the emergency room at Saint Francis Hospital in Blue Island.

A year earlier he'd been hospitalized there for a perforated ulcer and septic shock. But the surgery was successful, and he seemed to recover completely. Corina says this time emergency room staff thought Maro had an infection and gave him antibiotics. Six hours later he was in the intensive care unit--his blood pressure and oxygen levels had dropped. Later that afternoon he lost consciousness. "I had that horrible feeling that he was degrading in front of my very eyes," she says.

A doctor gave Maro more antibiotics, says Corina, and the following morning an infectious-disease specialist said he was responding to the medicine. But that afternoon a surgeon ordered more X-rays and noticed a hole in Maro's digestive tract. Doctors performed emergency surgery, but he died less than an hour afterward.

For the second time in her life, Corina says, she felt like that cartoon character on the mountain. "You run, you run, and you run--and suddenly there is nothing under your feet. I couldn't believe it." For 14 years she and Maro had been living as "one person, one mind." Now she felt as if someone had cut off her legs.

Knowing she wouldn't be able to reenter the U.S. if she left, she didn't go to Maro's funeral in Croatia. "When I accompanied him to the airport," she says, "it was awful to see the plane leaving without me on board." His relatives and friends called after the funeral and said his entire Croatian village had attended the mass, where there was an "ocean of flowers."

She had stayed home. She says she put portraits of Maro around the house, lit candles, and talked to him. As usual, she wore the miniature diamond-stud earrings he'd given her. "These I will keep until they take my ears," she says.

If Maro had become a citizen before he died Corina, whose current extension of her stay of deportation expires August 8, would probably be able to stay in the U.S. as his widow. Delgado is still trying to find some way to help Corina stay legally, even calling Senator Dick Durbin and Congressman William Lipinski. But, she says, "I'm not very optimistic."

"It's unfortunate, the situation, but the law is the law," says Maria Elena Garcia-Upton, a spokesman for U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services. "It clearly states who is eligible for permanent residency and/or naturalization. Although we try to work with people in unforeseen circumstances, we can only do so much to help them."

Corina says she doesn't want to go back to France. Her friends have moved, her sister's married, and her roots are no longer there. "I'm trying to make roots somewhere--I want them to be here," she says. "My life has been here for the last 14 years. My home is here. All my memories are here. I've been shaken by so many things in my lifetime. I don't feel like getting kicked out. I've been suffering in silence, not bothering anyone."

And the only friends who know about her life with Maro are here. "We had such an extraordinary survival story in this house," she says. "It all happened here. If I were to go somewhere else I would be lost."

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Suzy Poling.

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