WAYLAND — Neil K. Fox, whose struggles with his health and medical expenses were the subject of a July 2007 cover story in the Catholic Courier Monthly, has died at age 44.
Mr. Fox died Oct. 23, 2007, at Vincent House, a comfort-care facility in the former St. Joseph Church convent. He had been plagued by severe rheumatoid arthritis for more than a decade, and in recent years also suffered from congestive heart failure, strokes, pneumonia and infections.
Tributes given during Mr. Fox’s funeral service, held Oct. 27 at St. George-Stanton Funeral Home, described a gentle family man who was close with his five children and grandchild and shared a particularly special bond with his wife of seven years, Bonnie. Mr. Fox was a man of diverse interests and enjoyed music and sports, particularly Buffalo Bills football. In fact, at his funeral he was dressed in a No. 12 replica jersey of his all-time favorite Bill, Jim Kelly. Ann Johnson, Mr. Fox’s sister, recalled that she once wrote to the Hall of Fame quarterback and asked if he would come visit Mr. Fox.
"He wrote back saying he was sorry that his schedule wouldn’t allow it, but he sent Neil a personally autographed picture," she said.
Sisters Mary Jean Smith, SSJ, and Barbara Kuhn, SSJ, who have spent considerable time with the Foxes via their Kitchen Table Ministry, told the Courier that Mr. Fox remained unfailingly polite even during the late stages of his illness. Sister Smith noted "how grateful both Neil and Bonnie always were when we came to visit or brought food or clothes or whatever. I remember so many times when Neil was in agony, yet never failed to thank us for coming."
"He loved to bake and awaited the day he could bake cookies for one of the luncheons we often sponsor," Sister Kuhn added. "A kitten on his bed was another testimony to his gentle way. If he winced from pain and disturbed the cat, he would apologize to it."
Mr. Fox had appeared in the July Courier as part of a feature about the difficulties faced by people who can’t afford health insurance. At the time he was confined to a hospital bed in his living room, unable to work. His wife was neither able to obtain affordable coverage through work, nor qualify for adequate social services to keep up with Mr. Fox’s skyrocketing medical bills.
"We’re getting punished for getting sick," Bonnie Fox said in the story.
Sister Smith said several donations came in from community members after the Courier story appeared, and Bonnie Fox said that Steuben County Department of Social Services was helpful as well after previously being largely inaccessible.
"They called and said, ‘What can we do to help,’ and Social Services never does that," Bonnie Fox said.
Asked if she thought the department had become aware of the article, "either that, or (the phone call) came right from above," she replied, pointing toward the heavens.
In recent months Mr. Fox’s arthritis had steadily progressed, causing hallucinations and severe pain that resulted in several trips to the hospital and a short stay in a nursing home. He was moved to Vincent House on the morning of Oct. 23 and died about 9:30 that night in his wife’s arms.
Despite the financial assistance she has received, Bonnie Fox is still battling severe debt after quitting her job at a local furniture factory to stay home and care for her husband, who had become so incapacitated that "he could not even reach for a drink for himself," Sister Smith remarked. Sister Smith added that Bonnie Fox is behind on rent and, though she hopes to regain full-time employment, will likely have to move soon from the farm house she and her husband lived in. Bonnie also struggles with health issues of her own brought on by stress from the ordeal.
"It is about the saddest story I’ve known in a long time," Sister Smith commented.
Even so, Sisters Smith and Kuhn emphasized that they’ve drawn deep inspiration from watching the Foxes persevere through their trials.
"Bonnie never, ever complained about what it cost her," Sister Smith added, noting that Mr. Fox’s wife made sure somebody was with him at all times and often stayed up all night herself — "always with genuine love, patience and compassion."
"We both have been blessed to have met them and to have witnessed the love and dedication ‘in good times and in bad,’" Sister Kuhn said, calling the couple’s bond "a true example of love and devotion for the children to witness."
Meanwhile, copies of a quotation from Isaiah 57:1-2, distributed at his funeral, made for a fitting description of Mr. Fox’s departure from this earth:
"The righteous perish and no one ponders it in his heart; devout men are taken away, and no one understands that the righteous are taken away to be spared from evil. Those who walk uprightly enter into peace; they find rest as they lie in death."
EDITOR’S NOTE: Donations to support Neil Fox’s family may be sent to the Kitchen Table Ministry, 35 Maple Ave., P.O. Box 166, Cohocton, NY 14826.