The Nicest Place in Kentucky: Signature Health Care Nursing Facility in Elizabethtown

NICEST PLACES IN AMERICA 2020 FINALIST
"A Picture of Kindness"

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A man with a camera needs just a little extra help to spread joy to everyone around him.

For Tammy Ray of Elizabethtown, the healing moment comes when she’s washing Joe Hall’s window.

“I get more out of scraping bird poop than a lot of the things I do,” says Ray, laughing.

Ray, a nurse practitioner, is one of those people for whom the coronavirus has meant more work, not less. Based at Ft. Knox, she cares for soldiers, veterans and their families. With her clinic off-limits to all but the most urgent cases, the coronavirus means she’s working virtually almost all the time, using Zoom and phone calls to try to help stressed-out patients she can’t even touch.

Tammy Ray and Joe Hall, natives of this city of 30,000, are distant cousins who’ve been friends since they were kids. Hall is a born artist who started drawing “before I was two,” he says. A car crash left him mostly paralyzed below the shoulders at 19. Now 53, Hall shares a room with two men at the Signature Health Care Nursing Facility, where his passion and release is photographing birds.

“I love shooting pictures so much,” says Hall in a laconic, tobacco-farmer’s drawl. “If it wasn’t for the birds, I’d be kinda bored.”

It’s an understatement. Typically, Hall can get out with friends to take trips and shoot pictures, but the coronavirus restrictions mean no visits or excursions—“like being in prison,” Hall says.

Joe Hall with his specially adapted cameraTommy Warren/Courtesy Sherry Kenady
The artist, Joe Hall, with his camera

But birds will still come to his window—so Ray does too. When it’s dirty, he can’t create. When he can’t create, he can’t be Joe. So, two or three times a week, Ray packs up her cleaning rags and seeds and sets off on a journey that literally means the world to Hall.

“She’s my guardian angel,” says Hall. “I’ve told her many times, I owe her a mint.”

Despite the accident, Hall never stopped making art: writing poetry, drawing pictures, taking photos. Friends and family cobbled together a remarkable tripod-and-wood-plank contraption that allows him to aim and shoot with his mouth and the one finger he can twitch—a real “Kentucky redneck” masterpiece, he says.

“I kinda hold it with a mouth stick, and there’s this little red handle I can hit. It’s a challenge but I’ve mastered it,” says Hall.

The result are beautiful images of jays, finches, cowbirds and woodpeckers. Sometimes he takes as many as 950 shots in a day to get what he wants. But few things buck his spirits like hearing that someone likes his work.

“When people say, ‘Boy, that’s good,’ that means way more than money to me,” says Hall.

Ray knows how important Hall’s art is to him. Many people never see past his wheelchair, she says, but see his pictures and you’ll start to see the real Joe Hall.

But making and sharing art breaks down those walls, says Hall. His best friend at Signature is an “old hippie” named Tommy who never took a photograph in his life. When Hall got a new camera, he gave his old one to Tommy, who caught the bug. Now the pair shoot together whenever they can, and Hall has a plan to improve their gear. “I got one of those stimulus checks,” and he’s aiming to get a new camera that Tommy can share.

Seeing her old friend “paying it forward” warms Ray’s heart. Kindness and caring aren’t unusual in Elizabethtown, she says; the coronavirus pandemic has triggered a surge of volunteerism, with churches and nonprofits stepping up to help. Bourbon distilleries switched to hand sanitizer. Soup kitchens switched to curbside service. And the nurse practitioner from Ft. Knox started filling bird feeders.

“It heals us both,” she says.

photos of birds by Joe HallJoe Hall/Courtesy Sherry Kenady (3)
Knowing his art touches people brings pure joy to Joe Hall.

The Nomination

Joe Hall was injured in a car accident in February 1986 and left a Quadriplegic at the age of 19. He grew up as a broad-shouldered young man on a sprawling 164-acre farm in the country but now lives in a small room at Signature Healthcare, a skilled nursing facility in Elizabethtown, Kentucky as its youngest resident. Only staff can freely leave the building at this time and visitors are allowed only at the windows. Residents must wear masks if they leave their rooms and are allowed some short periods outside. After losing his freedom of movement that dreadful night 34 years ago, recent restrictions pale comparatively. He hopes the restrictions will be lifted soon so he can go see his brothers and mom at the farm: “I miss them so much,” Hall said.

Overwhelming frustration, loneliness and numerous health issues are a part of Hall”s daily routine, even before the virus changed the world’s daily regimen. He copes with an assortment of health problems, including body spasms, pain, high blood pressure and bladder infections. However, he has managed to find the bright side: “During this COVID-19 lock down I entertain myself by shooting pictures of many birds out my window, that helps pass the time,” said Hall. Family and friends made that possible: His cousin, Tammy Ray and best friend David Lucas set up bird feeders outside his window to improve the outside view and make Hall’s daily routine a little more enjoyable and active. “Tammy visits me at my window at times during the lock down quarantine here. I hope it ends soon so Tammy and my best resident buddy here, Tommy Warren, can hit Freeman Lake on a camera adventure,” said Hall. Ray refills his bird feeders when she visits at the window and brings him care packages.

Being interested in photography, he bought his first digital camera in 2003. “My mother and I came up with the idea of a short tripod using a mouth stick to operate the camera since I have no hand nor any finger movement but I can move and use my right arm to an extent,”‘ Hall explained.

Hall’s first DSLR camera came in December of 2019, a Canon EOS Rebel T7i, with a touch LCD screen plus a better tripod, which has been specially modified. The tripod was a little too tall, so a friend cut the legs shorter. “My cousin Greg Ray mounted it to a fancy wooden board that he made. He rounded the corners and added a small handle to the tripod that tilts the camera so I can loosen and tighten it myself,”‘ he described. He said he feels blessed to have a big window to look out and be able to take bird photos. After receiving his new Canon, he gave his old camera to his resident friend, Tommy Warren, who became interested in photography through Hall. Now, they both enjoy sharing great shots.

Elizabethtown has not forgotten the residents at Signature either, a local cell phone company donated iPads so residents could connect with family. A church coordinated a drive-by parade to wave at the residents, then put Bible verses of encouragement on each resident’s window. Hall has personally been given handmade blankets and clothes, and once a friend even brought him a double Whopper from Burger King.

photos of birds by Joe HallJoe Hall/Courtesy Sherry Kenady (3)
The birds are a great source of inspiration for Joe Hall.

Hall photographs lots of birds through his room window, including grosbeaks, cardinals, woodpeckers, doves, blue jays, and even a starling, though not his favorite. “I’d so much rather be out back where the birds are, but we can’t even go out there, only out front under a porch roof,” he complained slightly. “I love the dove shot as well. I love shooting them. They are such great posers.”

A 53-year-old quadriplegic has a unique, sobering perspective about COVID-19 from a wheelchair in a small room in a locked-down nursing home: “All this precious time going to waste, and I hate it. But what can I do? Just go with the crazy flow! All people who are physically normal don’t know how lucky they have it, as they can still get out and go, even though they have to stay home. I’d so much rather be walking of course, and stuck at my house on the farm, as that’s where I’d be if I hadn’t gotten in that life-cheating car wreck.”

Releasing doves is said to signify new beginnings and to represent peace and love. Although it is not his childhood farm in the country, photographing birds out his window seems to have a peaceful effect on Hall, especially during this time of COVID-19, thanks to small acts of kindness by a few people.

I wrote this on behalf of Joe Hall, who is a quadriplegic resident at Signature Health Care Nursing Facility in Elizabethtown, Kentucky. He took the attached bird photographs using a special mouthpiece on his camera. He is pictured in one photograph, which was taken by another resident at Signature Health Care, Tommy Warren. Joe Hall has endured a great deal in his life, has many reasons to be discouraged. I believe being able to share his story and his bird photographs would be an opportunity of a lifetime for him. He is also been a pointillism artist, creating artwork using a pen in his mouth.

Small seeds of kindness can reap huge rewards in another person’s life. Joe Hall bought a new camera and paid that blessing forward by giving his old one to a budding new photographer, Tommy Warren, who also lives at the nursing home. Warren was overwhelmed at his kindness. Joe Hall probably does not think he has much of anything to give, but his simple act of sharing what he no longer needed meant so much to his fellow resident. Blessings are spread out and multiply. Elizabethtown’s citizens seem to just apply their Southern hospitality all the time, through numerous local efforts during COVID and before.

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