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Tears, hugs and fresh air: Minnesota woman with disabilities returns home after legal saga

Cindy Hagen's case had galvanized disability rights advocates.

People with disabilities endure many of the same challenges as older people when trying to get quality care. New Elder Voice Advocates and Elder Care IQ board member, Misti Okerlund, has worked tirelessly to defend the legal protections and rights of Cindy Hagen. Both are pictured in this front page story.


Cindy Hagen was overwhelmed as she leaned back in her wheelchair and inhaled outside air for the first time in 294 days.

A group of friends and relatives huddled in the drizzle outside a hospital in Austin, Minn., last week as Hagen, 49, a quadriplegic with limited movement of her limbs, relished her newfound freedom.

"What is that?" asked Hagen, her eyes filling with tears. "Is that fresh air that I'm breathing?" Moments later, Hagen wheeled herself into a Dodge van and began a 90-minute journey home to Mankato. Gazing out the window at the passing landscape, Hagen excitedly pointed out the spring wildflowers. "I've been away too long," she said.

For Hagen, the journey home marked a victory in a monthslong struggle to regain her independence — one that galvanized many in Minnesota's disability community and prompted renewed calls to protect the civil rights of people with significant disabilities. Hagen had been living at the Mayo Clinic hospital in Austin since last July after seeking treatment for an infection. Even after she was healthy enough to leave, she could not do so, because she could not retain enough staff to provide care at the apartment in Mankato where she had lived for 21 years.

After several failed attempts to move Hagen to a senior facility, a Blue Earth County District Court judge in January placed her under an emergency guardianship — which gave an outside entity control over virtually every aspect of Hagen's life. Hagen and her attorney argued that she was capable of making decisions on her own, and that a guardian was not necessary.

For four months, Hagen lived in fear that a guardian would move her to a nursing home or other institution far removed from Mankato. Confined to a room for 24 hours a day, with a window that looked out on a blank wall, Hagen felt her mental and physical health deteriorate, day by day. She had frequent panic attacks and nightmares of being kidnapped.

Now, her legal saga has come to an end. This week, Blue Earth County Human Services asked the court to dismiss its guardianship petition — after Hagen met the terms of a legal agreement that called for her transition from the hospital to her home before May 12.

"It feels like I've been freed from prison," said Hagen, who is quadriplegic from a childhood car accident. "But in prison, I would have enjoyed more civil liberties."

Ecstatic, Hagen yelled out, "I'm home!" as her father swung open the doors to her apartment in Mankato — a place that had sat vacant for nearly 10 months. She did several tight circles with her wheelchair. Hagen was pleased to see that the tree outside her window was bursting with green buds; and that her large collection of stuffed animals stood like sentries in her living-room cabinet, just as she had left them.

"Never, ever underestimate a quad," she said, smiling.

As the evening bells of nearby St. John the Baptist Catholic Church tolled, Hagen pondered the hours and days ahead. First, she would need a shower. Her long brown hair, which hung in a ponytail, had only been washed once since Christmas. "I'm sick of these greasy locks!" she exclaimed. Second, she would look into adopting a cat. Eventually, as her stamina improved, Hagen would reconnect with old friends and fellow disability advocates in Mankato.

"I finally feel like I'm back to living where I'm wa