On July 18, two days before his 49th birthday, restaurant owner Charles Lunenfeld came to work ready to start the day. The owner of the Fishery, a popular waterfront seafood eatery in East Rockaway, Lunenfeld spends much of his time overseeing its day-to-day operations.
But this day was different.
“I don’t know what’s wrong,” he said to Mary Ellen Jacobs, the restaurant’s manager and a longtime friend. “My toes and fingers are numb.” Lunenfeld worked through the day, but by 11 that night, he knew something was seriously wrong and called an ambulance to his Rockville Centre home.
Since then, Lunenfeld has been a prisoner in his own body, afflicted with Guillian-Barré syndrome, an autoimmune disease in which the body’s immune system attacks the nervous system. He is now a patient at Gaylord Hospital, a long-term care facility in Wallingford, Conn.
“He is paralyzed from the nose down,” said Jacobs. “He can roll his eyes and a little bit of his head, and there’s a slight movement of his tongue. He’s on a respirator and a feeding tube.” She said that doctors believe Lunenfeld’s is a very severe case, and that his recovery may take years. But, she added, “He is aware of his surroundings. He knows what’s going on. He can communicate.”
Jacobs said that Tami Raymer, Lunenfeld’s sister, who lives in Connecticut, quit her job to care for him. “She goes through the alphabet with him,” Jacobs said, “and he blinks yes or no.” Lunenfeld also has a 5-year-old son, Jake.
Doctors are trying to wean him off the ventilator, Jacobs said, but Lunenfeld struggles when they try to remove it. “They don’t know yet when — or even if — he will have a full recovery,” she said, “but we’re hoping.”
Getting a community together
Debbie Hirschberg, president of the East Rockaway Chamber of Commerce, came up with the idea of holding a fundraiser, and one is now scheduled for Sunday.
“As the vice president of the Chamber, Charlie has done so much for this community,” said Hirschberg. “We wanted to do something, and he needs our help … his medical expenses are rising, and they expect him to be [at Gaylord] for a very long time.”