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Life in Shades of Pastel

Shervin Firouzi paints flowers and clown faces and whales that leap in showers of spray from the depths of aqua seas. A woman smiles in one painting, a swan drifts by in another. The shades are pastel-gentle, movement without violence, comment without rage.

“I used to paint in blacks and reds,” Firouzi says, talking around the paint brush in his mouth.” At one time you’d have seen harsh designs and distorted faces. I was full of anger and aggression. But that’s all gone now. I’m different.”

The hiss of a respirator slips into a moment’s silence. It comes at regular intervals, like someone softly shushing for quiet. Firouzi listens almost unconsciously, then goes back to creating the clown face on a canvas before him.

He moves his wheelchair slightly to catch a different quality of light slanting in through the window by his bed. So doing, he glances at the same view he has seen from the same window for almost two years: the smog-blurred outline of mountains in the background, endless gray rows of homes in the foreground.

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“It’s a typical view of the Valley,” Shervin says, turning slightly away. “I don’t brag about it.” More silence. More of the respirator’s hissing. Then he says in a tone of tempered desperation, “Get me out of here.”

Shervin Firouzi, age 23. A native of Iran, a restaurant manager by trade. In July, 1986, he dove into shallow water and was paralyzed from the neck down. He can move only his head. Without life-support systems, he would die. His hospital care amounts to $1,500 a day. Medi-Cal pays about half. The hospital feels that isn’t enough and wants him transferred to a convalescent unit. Firouzi wants to go home.

“I have a mother and sister at home,” he says, “but Medi-Cal won’t let me go there because they’d have to furnish a full-time nurse. They’ve already said yes to the equipment I need. Even giving me a nurse would save the state money. But they say I have to be sub-acute to rate a nurse. Sub-acute? Without a respirator, I would be dead in five minutes. Isn’t that acute enough?”

I met Shervin a little over a year ago. He was trying even then to go home. He felt the hospital walls were closing in around him. He felt he was in a prison. They tried once to place him in a convalescent home in Montebello. Shervin saw it as a place where old men went to die.

“The youngest person there was 55 and in a coma,” he says, coughing slightly. “The rest were in their 70s and 80s. I’m not ready to vegetate.” I ask about the cough. “It’s just a habit,” he says. “I have so few body functions that whatever I have, I use. Coughing is one.”

He began painting about a year ago and has had two shows, one in a library and one in a hair salon. All his work is in oils. Fifteen paintings are stacked on a cart ready to store until the next exhibition of his work. Others hang on the wall around his bed.

Firouzi is dark-haired and bearded. His face radiates good health, denying the calamity that has paralyzed his body. His eyes are sharp and focused. He operates his wheelchair by manipulating a control with his chin. He paints with a brush between his teeth. Sometimes he dreams he’s running.

“I awaken,” he says simply, “and I’m not.”

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“I’m not done with this life,” he says, dropping the paint brush to study the clown face on the canvas before him. “I want to visit schools to share my story with the kids. I want to tell them this could happen to anyone.

“I am in this position for a reason. Everything happens for a reason. If I didn’t feel that way I would spend my time saying ‘why me, why me?’ I don’t want to do that.” He speaks with difficulty. Immediately after the accident that paralyzed him, the effort was monumental. He had to learn to speak all over again.

He thinks about going back into the restaurant business again someday, maybe even owning his own place. At other times he talks about opening an art gallery. He has watched others go through his ward, their dreams as paralyzed as their bodies, numbed by drugs, counting the beats of their heart, praying to die.

“I’m not like that,” he says. “I have ambitions. I want to be somebody. It won’t be easy.” He pauses. “But then nothing is.”

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Firouzi is painting again as I leave, the brush clutched tightly in his teeth. The clown face is gleaming white, the eyes an electric blue. The respirator breathes softly into the silence.


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