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Tale of the toothpick that wasn't.

Wednesday, June 13, 2007
Chicago Sun-Times
by MARK BROWN Sun-Times Columnist

I will always think of Jorge Patterson as the Toothpick Guy, even though Patterson now tells me there never was a toothpick.

The toothpick was the hook that got me interested in Patterson in the first place, and like a piece of steak caught in a molar, I can't let go that easy.

It has been that way ever since an anonymous caller told us Patterson tried to steal a car to get to the hospital because he was in so much pain after swallowing a toothpick. Once arrested, the story went, Patterson became gravely ill, needed to be hospitalized and underwent multiple surgeries -- the six-figure tab for which must be paid by Cook County taxpayers.

For several weeks now, I've been trying to run down the story, all the while thinking I was chasing after the Toothpick Guy -- the whole business reminding me of the nursery rhyme about the old woman who swallowed a fly. ("I don't know why she swallowed a fly. Perhaps she'll die.")

The story is largely true, it turns out, just not the part about the toothpick, says Patterson, who told me from his hospital bed that his pain was actually the result of an infection caused by complications from a long untreated case of diabetes.

"Everybody think I ate a toothpick," Patterson shrugged, adding that he doesn't know how the legend got started, but thinks it must be something passed along by the police and correctional officers guarding his hospital bed on a 24-hour basis since his arrest.

'Probably I'll die here'

Patterson also says he wasn't stealing a car to drive to the hospital. Rather, he explains, he broke into a car and allowed himself to be arrested so police would be forced to get him hospital treatment.
As for dying like the little old woman who swallowed the fly, Patterson says it's more than a case of perhaps.

"I don't think they know how to fix it. Probably I'll die here," he says matter-of-factly.
But let's go back to the beginning, April 6, when Patterson was nabbed by Chicago police in the 1700 block of West Belle Plaine after a witness reported hearing a loud sound from the street and then seeing him crawling through the broken passenger window of a gray Jeep.

The arresting officers reported Patterson hid in the car and then tried to run off. They said they caught him with $20 in coins and dollar bills stolen from the car. He was charged with burglary.
Patterson, though, never made it to the police lockup. Complaining of a severe stomachache, he was transported to Advocate Illinois Masonic Medical Center. From that point, information about his condition is protected by federal privacy restrictions, but I understand he had at least three surgeries before he was transferred May 17 to Stroger Hospital. After a short stay there, he was moved to another county facility, Oak Forest Hospital.

24-hour guard

That's where I found him Thursday during visiting hours with the sheet pulled over his head as if he were already dead. A Cook County correctional officer assigned to guard him watched from a chair inside the door.

Toothpick Guy turned out to be a descriptive nickname after all for Patterson, who pulled back the sheet to reveal a gaunt and bony body. Patterson says he slipped into a coma shortly after his arrest and weighed only 99 pounds when he regained consciousness at Illinois Masonic, down from a normal weight of 140.

Patterson was happy to talk with me, but communication was difficult. On top of being very sick, he speaks with a heavy Spanish accent.

Patterson, 49, explained he was born in Cuba and came to the United States in 1980 during the Mariel boatlift, when 125,000 refugees fled the country with Castro's permission. Some had been released from jails and mental health facilities.

"Everybody in my neighborhood was coming to Miami," he says. "You know what Castro did to let you go? He make you sign a paper saying you're homosexual or you're alcoholic."

Patterson says he was neither. Just the same, coming here didn't go well. His relatives in the Cuban community rejected him because of his black skin, he says.

He ended up settling in Chicago, where his stay has been marked by 15 arrests over the years -- five felonies and 10 misdemeanors. His entry on the Illinois Department of Corrections Web site indicates he was still on parole from an attempted burglary conviction in 2005 when he was pinched in April.

Patterson said he broke into the car instead of going to Stroger Hospital on his own because he had already been there, wasn't satisfied with the treatment and was hoping to land somewhere better. Nobody can tell me how big a bill he has run up, but six weeks and three operations alone at Illinois Masonic don't come cheap.

Still, no toothpick. I guess there's not a story here after all.

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