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Catastrophe may be only a slip away

She is no different than a lot of us. A burden of bills is balanced by a paycheck, maybe two or three paychecks. Sometimes the scale shifts a bit, one way or the other. But the fragile balance holds. For most of us, it holds.

In a moment, all of that can change. A fall on the ice. A skip of a heartbeat. A drunken driver swerves into your lane. Any of it happens, injury or illness, and the bills climb. A paycheck disappears. Bill collectors come calling. The life we take for granted disappears. The things that are part of us -- house, job, car -- are taken away. It is the bad luck of the draw. It can happen to any of us. It happened to Colleen Mondello.

She is 48. She has worked since she was a 16-year-old counter girl at Sweet Kleen Cleaners. She spent the past 17 years clerking at a local hospital. She and husband Dave saved enough eight years ago to buy a fixer-upper in Depew. It got them and their two boys out of the inner city and into a no-frills Cape with a view of Transit Road.

"The boys could be safe," she said, "and ride their bikes on the street."

It all changed a year ago. She fell on the ice outside the hospital entrance. A surgeon rebuilt four vertebrae and put two permanent titanium rods and six screws in her lower spine.

After the required 12-week sick leave, the hospital fired her. Down a paycheck, Dave worked OT at his factory job and picked up cash plowing driveways. The bills stacked up. Help from relatives stopped the bank from taking back the house -- for now. This week she lost her 2001 Explorer, leaving only Dave's decade-old pickup. The phone got turned off. She can't by law sue her former employer. Life is falling apart.

When counting blessings over the holidays, remember her story. Understand that catastrophe is closer than we think. It brings with it not just pain, but a swamp of bureaucracy. As Colleen Mondello struggles to cling to life as she knows it, her hands are bound in red tape.

Her doctor said she can't work again -- full disability. She can't sit for more than 20 minutes at a time. Her left leg sometimes feels like it is on fire. She can cook dinner, if somebody else gets out the pots. She is not a person who fakes an injury to live off of the system.

"I want to work; I loved being with people," said Mondello, sitting on a recent afternoon at her small kitchen table.

She is a straight-ahead Buffalo gal who took on a tough life without complaint. The family's muscle and sweat turned the wreck of a house in Depew into a home. Both of their boys, now in college, had handicaps -- one barely two pounds at birth, the other with an autism-like condition. She and Dave took on second jobs to pay the bills.

There is supposed to be a safety net for the Colleen Mondellos. But the lifeline seems more like a noose. She applied for Social Security disability and, like most folks, got rejected -- they think she can do "sedentary" work. She set up a hearing with a judge, which is where justice often gets done. But she has to wait 21 months to be heard.

"There are thousands of people like her," said her attorney, Lewis Schwartz, who specializes in disability cases. "The system is short of people. So you have to wait [for a hearing]."

By the time Colleen Mondello sees a judge, her house will be gone. Her 2001 SUV is already gone. Life as she knows it will be gone. She wrote to Sen. Hillary Clinton and met with aides for Congressman Brian Higgins, hoping that the politicians can speed up her court hearing.

"How can two hard-working people lose everything just because I fell?" Mondello asked, her eyes filling. "We don't drink. We don't do drugs. We don't live beyond our means . . . I thought the system helped people who deserve help."

Then one day she slipped on the ice. And found out how close to the edge she, like so many of us, lives.


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