They lost more than $500,000, everything they owned, in the 2008 stock market crash, but John "Pat" Fitzpatrick, a licensed, nationally certified addictions counselor and former business owner, and his wife, Diane, had started to recover and were making ends meet.
Then financial tragedy struck again this year when Diane, 59, suffered lung damage after a devastating house fire. The couple escaped without injury, but she returned to the closed-off house to retrieve belongings.
Fitzpatrick, 67, said his wife of 35 years inhaled toxic gases that put microscopic holes in her lungs, and she eventually had to have part of one lung removed. Fitzpatrick stopped working to take care of her. She went from being an energetic stay-at-home grandmother who volunteered at school to needing help getting out of bed.
The couple are among hundreds of people helped by the Neediest Cases Fund, a charity begun in 1914 by Chattanooga Times publisher Adolph Ochs and continued by the Times Free Press that kicks off for this year today. Stories of local people who need assistance will run in the newspaper twice a week until the end of December, and donations from readers will help them and others through the United Way.
Alison Gerber, editor of the Times Free Press, said the Neediest Cases fund raises money for neighbors who are struggling to overcome poverty or a tough patch in life. So far this year, the Neediest Cases Fund has helped 170 families and given $69,800.
"It's designed to help people who desperately need help with a particular need but have no other options," Gerber said. "The Times, and later the Times Free Press, have been raising money for this fund for 102 years."
Between the stock market crash in 2008 and their house fire this year, the Fitzpatricks lost almost everything: home, car, and their upper-middle-class status. They moved from a home in Hurricane Creek to an East Ridge duplex and then, after the fire, to an extended-stay hotel. Diane Fitzpatrick said she's still grateful to be alive.
"I'm thankful for my health," she said, with oxygen tubes in her nose.
She has so many breathing devices in her bedroom there's only room for a twin-size bed. Fitzpatrick sleeps on the couch.
Joe Smith, director of mission advancement of the YMCA of Metropolitan Chattanooga and a family friend, referred the couple to Neediest Cases after visiting the hotel to take Diane to the hospital.
"If we hadn't got that woman to the hospital that night, she would not have lived another day," Smith said. "She was nearly dead. Come to find out she had a collapsed lung. They are a family that deserves a break."
Smith helped the couple get a home and furniture to go in it. Neediest Cases helped them pay their first month's rent.
The United Way of Greater Chattanooga and area case workers encourage people to donate more, because with more funds, more families get help.
"You can't keep what you have unless you give it away," Smith said. "The more you help somebody, the more you give, not just money but also time, you'll realize you are the one who gets the blessing."
Diane Jarvis, Neediest Cases manager at the United Way, said the fund is intended to help people who need just a small amount of assistance to reach stability. It has helped people pay for rent, utility bills, medication and transportation, she said.
It also helped the Fitzpatricks. But Pat Fitzpatrick said he's far from stable.
In the mid-1990s he was grossing $250,000 a year providing counseling services to agencies such as Hospital Corporation of America, HealthSouth and through his own business, Mountain View Counseling Services LLC.
Now he's supporting his family with $1,348 a month from Social Security. To illustrate his life's turn of events, Fitzpatrick noted that at one time he was Smith's supervisor and tried to help him, and now it's Smith who is ministering to him.
The Fitzpatricks have no car and Fitzpatrick, who suffers muscle weakness caused by post-polio disorder, has a hard time walking back and forth to the store, so sometimes he gets food at gas stations. He's worried about having rent for next month.
The Fitzpatricks had their mail forwarded to a close relative's house after the fire, and they never received messages from the IRS and other collection agencies. Now Fitzpatrick is trying to learn why $200 of his $1,348 is being taken out of his Social Security payment.
Diane Fitzpatrick said this is the first time she's experienced "being poverty-stricken," yet she speaks optimistically, saying she's glad to still be alive. But Fitzpatrick, the family breadwinner, said he struggles daily for survival.
"I'm a nervous wreck," he said. "I'm so desperate for help."
Contact staff writer Yolanda Putman at email@example.com or 423-757-6431.