He rambles. He can’t sit still for a minute. He admits there were times in his life where he wondered if he wanted to live — and occasionally still does.
But unlike many in his situation, Russ Cohen never gave up.
Confined to a wheelchair following a 2013 stroke on his right side, he finally stopped feeling sorry for himself after the loss of a close friend and decided to get up — literally — and do something. So he started volunteering at area nursing homes.
And while the wheelchair still sits in his cramped apartment at the Elkins Park House as a reminder, for the most part he’s walking.
He wants those facing some of the same issues to not feel quite so alone.
“I was depressed,” said the 54-year-old Cohen, whose situation came to the attention of the JEVS Human Services
Nursing Home Transition program about three months after his stroke. JEVS has been at his side since, now helping him adjust through its Supports Coordination program. “I wasn’t in denial.
“I couldn’t move. They carried me on a gurney. I was very unhappy. I just wanted to die.”
The stroke occurred when Cohen was on his way to work at York Nursing and Rehabilitation Center. The receptionist noticed he was sweating and seemed out of sorts, and immediately called for an ambulance. Once admitted to the hospital, Cohen, who admits he wasn’t taking care of himself then, fought his caretakers at every turn.
“I thought I had a fever,” said Cohen, who was a heavy smoker and had issues with bulimia and anorexia. “I went to Einstein for four days and got kicked out because I refused treatment.
“I tried to hide it from my parents for a couple of days because my dad had had a stroke a few years before.”
Eventually, he realized the problem was far more serious than he imagined. Over the course of the next year, Cohen began his recovery, living at Majestic Oaks Rehabilitation and Nursing Center in Warminster while rehabbing at Moss-Rehab in Elkins Park.
But he still felt like an outsider, which in some ways made him feel strangely comfortable. After all, Cohen had always been different.
“Russell always marched to his own drummer,” said his mother, Ellen Cohen, who indicated her son was diagnosed with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) when he was in first grade. “He had a handicap growing up, but not a lot was available in terms of education.
“He was never on any medication, but he was very bright and his memorization skills were amazing.”
They encountered so much resistance sending their son to Hebrew school that the Cohens left Northeast Philadelphia for the Jersey shore.
“Getting Bar Mitzvahed for me was difficult because I was rejected by the Philadelphia synagogues at the time, because of my learning disability,” said Cohen, who would later return to attend Lower Moreland High School and the Ashbourne School. “Rabbis then did not know how to deal with this.
“But we had a house in Longport from before. We went to the rabbi in Margate at Temple Emeth Sholom [Reform Congregation], Rabbi Seymour Rosen. He said, ‘Sure I’ll take him.’ Because of him, I got into biblical history. He gave me more than a Bar Mitzvah. He was a rabbi of the heart.”
Meanwhile, Cohen kept showing up people who told him he couldn’t achieve things.
“They told my parents, ‘Accept his limitations. He won’t go to college,”’ he said, bitterly recalling his time at Ashbourne. “That’s right. I didn’t go to college. I went to graduate school.”
In 1985, Cohen graduated from Bradford College in Haverhill, Mass., with a degree in creative arts. After working briefly for a Huntingdon Valley company, he switched over to the mental health field, working for agencies in Germantown and Mount Airy before moving back to the shore to take a position at Oceanside Convalescent Center. That evolved into a job at Seashore Gardens Living Center, a Jewish agency in Galloway Township.
“It was always about helping people,” explained Cohen, who recently led the seder at The Chelsea at Jenkintown, a nursing home. “It was never about making money or having money.
“But the reason I moved back here was because I got accepted into graduate school at Gratz in 2007. I got my master’s in Jewish studies in 2010. I wasn’t after a career. I just wanted it. Then I decided to get some graduate certificates.”
Of the event that sent him careening for a time, he was philosophical.
“Anybody can get a stroke,” he warned. “You don’t have to be a certain age. It knows no bounds.”
The effects of the stroke left him as much emotionally as physically damaged.
“The one thing I did was volunteer,” said Cohen, who volunteers at Moss three days a week and Chelsea twice a week and, whenever he can, tries to get over to Gratz. “I ran the interfaith services and got very close to some of the residents there.”
He also became friends with a woman who worked at Gratz named Lenore Bryant; she died in December 2015.
“She had set me up with Ellen Goldberg, who manages the volunteers at Moss,” said Cohen, who never married or had children. “After Lenore died, [Goldberg] said, ‘Why don’t you volunteer at Moss?’
“Now I go into patients’ rooms. I pick up their spirits. I hear their stories. I do things I never had done for me. And what I like about the place is I don’t have to hide anything there. I can be me.”
For all the progress Cohen has made, he still requires daily care from JEVS, which includes help with his bathing, dressing, eating (he receives Meals on Wheels) and other basic functions most take for granted.
“We so often see people in this position just quit,” said JEVS publicist Justin Windheim. “They figure, ‘This is my life. This is how I’m going to be.’”
Cohen has those moments, too.
“There are still days when I wake up and, for about a minute and a half when I think about all the stuff I have to deal [with], I think, ‘I don’t want to be here anymore,’” he said. “Then I say, ‘OK, enough of that.’ Now I’m ready to go.”
Those who know him best find his progress hard to believe.
“I never would’ve expected him to be where he is now,” said his younger brother, Jonathan. “If you’d seen him in the hospital you would’ve shaken your head. Even a year ago I’m surprised how far he’s come.”
So is his mother.
“I’m so proud of him,” Ellen Cohen said. “The fact [that] Russell has accomplished what he has is amazing. He was always striving for independence, and now he’s got it. It gives him a feeling of success.”
So what if he rambles, which he says doesn’t happen when he talks to patients. Or if he can’t sit still. Russ –which he prefers even though everyone else calls him Russell—Cohen is living proof that being learning disabled, being a stroke victim, isn’t a death sentence.
For the man who marches to the beat of his own drummer, rock on.
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