Longform

MISCUE 911

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@body:It is a sweltering summer's night, and Joe Dugan and his children--Maggie, Diane, Brian and Lynne--have gathered on the back porch of the Dugans' tidy Glendale home.

Joe and Sarah Dugan's four grandchildren play boisterously inside the home, a few feet from the bedroom in which Sarah is reclining. Sarah spends most of her hours there, drifting in and out of a netherworld that seems impossible to quantify.

Every so often, she demands something in a loud, slurred voice. But much of the time she just lies there, surrounded by signs of the family's devout Catholic faith.

Her husband of 35 years has tacked up a handwritten missive near Sarah's bed. "Lord, thank you for blessing us every day with courage, faith, forgiveness and hope," it says. "Lord, we can feel you offering miracles for us to behold."

And it will take a miracle for Sarah Dugan to get better: She often contorts uncontrollably, despite medication designed to keep spasms to a minimum. She can't say if something is bothering her physically. She's incontinent. She can't remember her children's names or her married name. Her sleep patterns are erratic.

"This scenario--what she is today--is Mom's worst nightmare," says daughter Diane Dugan Roche, a dental hygienist who lives in Tucson. "She talked about it because of her previous heart problems. She made out a living will. And she always would say, 'Don't let me live if I can't be me.'"
Once, Sarah was known for her keen sense of humor. But she rarely smiles anymore, and usually it's more of a grimace than an expression of joy. Her loved ones must try to find comfort in the memories of the person Sarah once was.

"I've always known Sarah was the best woman in the world since I met her," 60-year-old Joe Dugan says softly. That was in the early 1950s in their hometown of Steubenville, Ohio.

The two met at a dance after 19-year-old Joe Dugan's first year of professional baseball with the St. Louis Cardinals organization. He soon became smitten with the outgoing high school student.

Joe was forced to put his pro baseball career on hold after he joined the Air Force in 1952. He and Sarah exchanged dozens of letters during his four-year hitch, during which he starred for the branch's traveling ball team.

Dugan returned to the minor leagues after his honorable discharge in 1956. But the big time wasn't in his future, unlike his namesake of New York Yankee fame, "Jumpin'" Joe Dugan. So Dugan moved back to Steubenville, found work in a steel mill and, in 1957, asked Sarah to marry him.

"God bless me for having Sarah say yes," he says, gesturing to the couple's black-and-white wedding photo. "She was the only woman for me. She is my love, my life, my all."
After Sarah Dugan's family, American Express was her all. Until the day she collapsed, say those who know her well, Sarah went to work with the same zest as she had after the company hired her 17 years earlier.

Seeking a fresh start, the Dugans and their four children migrated to Phoenix from their native Ohio in 1972. American Express hired Sarah full-time the following year, after she worked a stint there as a Kelly Girl. Sarah quickly entrenched herself as a valued employee at the fast-growing firm.

"Mom and all of us always thought the company was great," says 27-year-old Lynne Dugan, a former part-time American Express employee and the youngest of the Dugan children. "She worked hard and they promoted her. We just don't know why they did what they did with 911."
Her ambivalence is indicative of the Dugan clan's attitude toward the company.
"We all still have our American Express cards, you know, 'Don't Leave Home Without It,'" Lynne Dugan continues. "But what about leaving home without 911? What about that?"
Two of the Dugan siblings excuse themselves for a few minutes to change their mother's soiled bedclothes. They accept the unsavory task with grace and gallows humor, then return to the conversation.

"My mom is a shell," says Maggie Dugan Radovanovich, the Dugans' first-born and a registered nurse who also lives in Tucson. "She was the hub of our family--our best friend, our confidante. The worst thing now is, nothing is final, everything is gray--the court case, her health, everything."
The Dugans' only son, Brian, expresses outrage that his mother's employer blocked 911.

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Paul Rubin
Contact: Paul Rubin