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NIAGARA CLOSEUP: A life devoted to mental health

By Cheryl Clock, The Standard

Years ago, a 20-something George Kurzawa worked in the asylum by the lake. A psychiatric hospital bordered by Lake Ontario on one side and lots of green space distancing it from the rest of the world.

It sat on the edge of nowhere. Separated, and isolated. Us and them.

Kurzawa, his long, dirty blond hair flowing freely, did not wear a uniform and did not have a name tag. Indeed, the only indication that he worked as a psychiatric nursing attendant at Lakeshore Psychiatric Hospital was a set of keys in his hand. He needed the array of keys to navigate from ward to ward, through the security of many double locked doors.

One day, he was called to help staff calm down a male patient.

The man looked at Kurzawa. “Who are you? Are you a patient or staff?” he asked.

“What’s the difference?” countered Kurzawa.

“I don’t know.”

“I’ll tell you the difference,” said Kurzawa, automatically, “I have these keys and you don’t.”

It was not a taunt. Not meant to intimidate. It was simply, and profoundly, a statement of observed fact.

What really is the difference?

A set of keys.

Kurzawa, the executive director of Niagara’s Canadian Mental Health Association, has had years to think about his brief conversation with the man.

On this day, he sits in his office in the former Stokes Seed building on Page Street in St. Catharines. A large rectangular macrame hanging featuring an Aztec warrior in the centre, consumes most of one wall. He worked a lot of night shifts at Lakeshore and made the artwork to pass time during the day. He tried to install it on a wall at home, but his wife vetoed the attempt. So, he brought it to his office.

After 16 years at CMHA, the 66-year-old, who hasn’t missed a morning swim (28 lengths usually) since he started 25 years ago to reduce stress and improve his own mental health, will retire Friday.

The stories and people whose lives have intersected with his over the years are still fresh in his memory. Like the man at Lakeshore.

“We are both the same human beings. I was lucky enough to have a job and these keys and he was unlucky enough to be locked up,” says Kurzawa.

“I had my freedom and he didn’t.

“I thought about that my whole life. We are all mentally ill along gradients. At what point do you choose to discriminate and stigmatize people?”

Indeed, Kurzawa has made it his life’s passion to eliminate stigma.

No them. Only us.

His first lessons in humanity came from his own home. His parents, Polish refugees of the Second World War, met and married in England. His father worked as a butcher at Canada Packers. His mother shared many stories of hardship, but one in particular resonated with Kurzawa. A story about the kindness of people. One Easter, living in Siberia, a woman gave their family one egg. An extravagance deeply appreciated and shared.

As a teenager, he volunteered for the Morfudd Harries School for the Retarded — a school for adults with developmental disabilities, its name alone a symbol of an antiquated, bygone era. He was tasked with a variety of jobs, including changing diapers.

One day, he discovered a piano and started to play. He found the men and women tambourines to bang.

“I learned about the humanity of everyone. There’s no us and them.”

He remembers one man in particular. His face was misshapen and hair grew in clumps on his head. “I was shocked to see someone so different and disabled,” says Kurzawa.

The man spoke with mumbled words, but one day came to sit next to Kurzawa at the piano.

“By the time I left, I didn’t notice the differences anymore. I noticed the person.

“Those became superficial differences.”

Later on, as a nursing attendant at Lakeshore Psychiatric Hospital, he was tasked with a variety of jobs. Bathing patients. Assisting nurses to give medication. Helping patients to eat, and taking them on walks out of the ward. He most enjoyed entertaining residents with his piano music. Yellow Submarine. Our Day Will Come. He’d watch them dance and jump around.

“These are images that stick in your mind,” he says. “These are seminal moments in your career.”

He remembers the woman whose bed was closest to his piano. She would lay there, unresponsive for hours. Then one day, she noticed him.

“She got up out of bed and sat beside me,” he says. “That was one of my biggest accomplishments.”

Later on in university one of his friends became a quadriplegic due to a brain tumour. He died within a year.

During the last year of his life, Kurzawa was determined to help. He had a hunger to learn whatever he could about quadriplegia and connected with Judith Snow, a woman who had no movement below her neck.

Snow, who died in 2015, was a relentless advocate for people with disabilities and a champion of inclusion.

Kurzawa became her personal assistant, travelling with Snow. He met people at opposite extremes — people who lived independently, and people who were never, ever shown the possibilities of life.

One day, he was assisting Snow out of her wheelchair using a hydraulic lift.

“It was hurting her,” says Kurzawa.

“She said to me, ‘Listen, you think too much. I’m in charge here. Don’t think about it and I’ll be OK.’”

It was a subtle yet important message. “I thought that I had to think for her,” he says.

She taught him otherwise. Indeed, it’s an assumption pressed upon people with mental illness by a society that thinks they know better. They don’t, he says.

“It’s better to have the freedom to live and make mistakes,” he says. “People need the dignity to take risks.”

Life lessons come to him from many people whose lives converge with his, however briefly.

His friend once asked him, “Why do you do this?”

“This is more for me than you,” Kurzawa suggested. “I can appreciate every little thing in my life.

“What people survive and get through, your own issues are put into place.”

Three years ago, he told his board of directors that he wanted to retire. Friday, he will finally do it.

He will attend the organization’s annual general meeting breakfast. And then, in his words, “goof off.”

This will involve dropping in on a Quest Community Health Centre barbecue. Kurzawa was its first volunteer president and helped to found the organization that provides primary health-care services to individuals experiencing social, economic and cultural barriers.

After that, he will indulge many of his other passions.

Music will be at the top. He grew up playing the accordion, (classic pieces like the Gypsy Waltz, not Lady of Spain) and he even won the Eastern Ontario Accordion Championships for 16-year-olds. He picked up the award in Toronto, at the King Edward Hotel. By coincidence, American rock band The Monkees were staying there.

“The girls were screaming outside,” says Kurzawa. “Security barred me from getting up to their floor.”

In a moment of free-spirited fun and mischief, he wrote the names of each band member on pieces of toilet paper, and launched them into the air from above, taking great pleasure watching them float down to the girls below.

“Yeah, it was stupid,” he says with a shrug. “But what do you do as a 16-year-old?”

If he’s home alone, depending on his mood, he might play some blues. Or maybe some heavier rock. Think English rock band, Arctic Monkeys, or some Zeppelin (any of their albums will do). Or a little jazz.

Once a year, Kurzawa and a friend guest host radio show Vinyl from the Crypt, on University of Toronto station CIUT. Kurzawa (after some gentle prodding), reveals his on-air persona — Mx Mause (pronounced mix mouse), a contemplation on his love of cooking and appreciation for Deadmau5. His friend, the “music encyclopedia” calls himself, Masta Payne (he has sore knee joints).

“We had to come up with hurried names,” he says, smiling.

Together they spin vinyl, thrash metal, punk, new wave, “obscure stuff,” he says. “All four listeners love it.”

In retirement, he will rejoice in never having to pack a lunch again and yet welcome the time he can spend creating culinary magic in his kitchen. French cuisine is his favourite. His beef bourguignon (and its three days of prep) appeals to his sense of artistry.

“It’s like a melody to me when I see something on the plate,” he says.

Even though he will leave his job, he won’t leave his belief in people with mental illness.

He believes in safe beds to keep people in crisis free from harm. He is frustrated by a chronically underfunded system. In the last decade, base funding, especially for the organization’s older programs, has decreased by 25 per cent when compared against inflation, he says.

Growth happens through new initiatives. “Older programs languish and remain challenging to maintain with deflated budgets,” he says.

And there’s still work to be done to eliminate discriminatory language. Words like crazy and nuts perpetuate stigma, he says.

“Even though people don’t realize, it’s further stigmatization.

“It’s subtle, but it’s still there.”

Cclock@postmedia.com